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.
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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.