Eric Church Is Headlining Stagecoach, But He's Still a Country Music Outsider
When Eric Church tops the bill Friday night at the Stagecoach Festival, the massive, multi-day country bash that takes over Indio each year after Coachella, he'll mark the latest signpost of success on a career path that's rarely conformed to industry norms. Preferring to write his own material, Church opts out of the Nashville song-factory system, in which recording artists draw from dozens or hundreds of potential tunes pitched by publishing houses employing stables of writers.
His assault on the charts has been a ground game, not an air war; lacking quick success on the radio, he built his following (the Church Choir, natch) by hard touring, hundreds of shows a year spent prowling the stage, pounding his chest and stomping so energetically he once broke his foot. And in a genre fetishizing squeaky-clean heartthrobs and flooded with party-hearty bros, Church comes off more thoughtful, complex and dangerous than his peers.
That rebel image has long been a central selling point for Church, who studied business and marketing at Appalachian State University in his native North Carolina. Eight years after getting fired from a Rascal Flatts tour, he still gets mileage out of pissing off the well-scrubbed duo. More recently, he ripped one of country's reigning royals in a feud with Blake Shelton. And he's rarely without the reflective aviator shades that give him the look of a deranged motorcycle cop.
Released in February, Church's fourth album, The Outsiders, works the oppositional angle from the title on down. "They're the in-crowd, we're the other ones," he growls on the opening track. Given that his previous disc, 2011's Chief, spawned four Top 10 country singles - including a legit pop crossover hit, "Springsteen" - and that both it and The Outsiders opened at No. 1 on the pop charts, it's fair to ask just what he's outcast from. What happens when the self-styled loner is elected homecoming king?
In the case of The Outsiders, rebellion is about confounding expectations for what a country record, especially an Eric Church country record, is supposed to sound like. This one opens with the title cut, a cleansing blast of hard-rock guitars abrading everything in their path. But then, with the listener primed for a Monsters of Rock set aimed at the cheap seats, Church turns inward with "A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young," a murmured, finger-picked reflection on surviving bad behavior that should have killed you, and realizing you want to live.
Church is no stranger to country tropes; past hits and fan favorites prize road-dogging ("These Boots"), god-fearing ("Like Jesus Does"), and lots of hard partying ("Smoke A Little Smoke," "Drink In My Hand," "Jack Daniels" and more). But when lyrical saws like fast cars, icy brews and broken hearts pop up on The Outsiders , things are rarely what they seem.
"Talladega" sets out like an ode to wild times - the boys going to the race track - but winds up a wistful slo-mo reflection on youth and friendship. While current single "Give Me Back My Hometown" reads like easy nostalgia - and its U2-like wordless chorus is stamped for summer-jam ubiquity - a closer listen finds Church haunted at every turn, his memories a funhouse full of ghosts. "Cold One" is the nearest thing to a genre exercise, all juicy Dobro twang and sly humor, its title a reference to getting jilted, not drunk.
The disc draws on styles rooted throughout the south, from the sultry Memphis soul of "Like A Wrecking Ball" to the swampy New Orleans brass of "The Joint" to Kris Kristofferson's barfly Buddhism in the spoken word of "Prince of Darkness."
That expansive artistic vision is a good fit for Stagecoach, which draws acts across decades and from every corner of country. Church can hang with fellow headliners Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan - they teamed up on last year's swaggering hit "The Only Way I Know" - but like former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell on the undercard, he'll sound equally at home on a bill with Lynyrd Skynyrd and John Prine. The three-day festival also includes Florida-Georgia Line, Hunter Hayes, Lee Brice and Ashley Monroe.
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