Eric Church sings songs about Springsteen and smoking pot. His band prefers metal guitars to banjo, and he wears a trucker cap no self-respecting cowboy would be caught dead in. In Nashville, they call that a rebel.
Credit: Photograph by Andrew Hetherington

Night is coming, the sun is fading, and soon Church is half-covered in shadow. He's sort of an odd-looking guy. If he shaved and got rid of all that chin stubble, he'd probably look like a cross between the baby-faced Clay Aiken and a Western screech owl. But if that's indeed the case, you'll never know it, because he's rarely seen anywhere without ornamentation: Besides the facial hair, there's a pair of giant aviator sunglasses and a Von Dutch hat. Put those things together like you see on the cover of Chief and what you've got is a badass, hard-ass, square-jawed guy you wouldn't want to mess with, such that it might be safe to say that, in public, he hardly ever looks like himself.

Church leans forward on his elbows. "I have a pretty good understanding of how I am. I've always been pretty laid-back and easygoing, until I'm not. When I get going, you're never going to stop me. When it gets going, I'll destroy everything." In the twilight, he smiles and does indeed seem pretty easygoing. Then he says, "When I play, I'm a different person than at any other time."

His nickname on the road is Chief. It's what his band calls him, his crew, and his wife. He's the boss man and the leader, in all kinds of different ways. "My life is pretty routine. I don't go out a lot, I don't drink all that much, but when I tour, then all bets are off," he says. "See that fifth of Jack? I can drink that bottle, even a bottle and a half. Even when I play shows, drinking is part of it. I'll have a couple of drinks before I go out. It's got to be whiskey – nothing else will work. It lets me know it's showtime. It's a way for me to get in the right frame of mind. And over the years, I've become a pro at it."

He stops for a minute and lets the darkness settle in. He says his wife is a pro drinker, too, and fine with Chief, but she has her limits. "Her thing is, 'Chief can't come home.' See, she always tells people that Chief is real. It's a real thing. I'm a different guy. I'm a different hang. Some people are intimidated by it and cut me a wide berth. I've noticed it. Seriously, when I'm Chief, I'm different than at any other time in my life."

At 23, after a five-year stint at Appalachian State University, Church moved to Nashville to make it as a songwriter. For two years, it was one disappointment after another, until one day the president of one of Nashville's largest publishing companies called him in for a meeting. Church could feel it in his bones: He was about to hit it big. He'd seen flunkies at the outfit a few times; now he was sitting in front of the head honcho, who wanted him to play a couple of tunes. He was in the middle of "Lightning," his Green Mile–inspired song about the death penalty, when the man held up his hand. "I don't know where you're from," the guy said, "or what you do there, but I'd go back. Go on." Church was crushed. So he went out and got drunk, slept it off, then lifted his head to the new day, and answered the ringing phone. It was Arturo Buenahora Jr., from Sony/ATV Music Publishing, who called him in for a meeting, heard him play a few songs, and signed him to a songwriting deal. "That's it, just like that, the day after the other thing," Church says, still looking a little dazed by how it worked out. It wasn't long before he put a band together and started recording his songs himself.

Two early singles entered the top 10, "Hell on the Heart" and "Love Your Love the Most." But the release that made him the happiest was "Smoke a Little Smoke," his love-of-weed song, which he says he had to push the label to release. "I didn't know where it would take us," he says. "I just knew it would take us somewhere."

He yawns in the darkness of the trailer. The only thing left to talk about is the Von Dutch hat, which he's turned into kind of a fetish and which is kept in a certain secret somewhere. "Oh, man, don't make this all about the hat," he says at one point.

Is it here, nestled in a cubbyhole in the trailer bedroom for safekeeping?

Very slowly, he shakes his head. "It's not back there, in case the bus burns down," he says. It's so odd, isn't it, such a deep and abiding attachment to a hat?

Again, he takes his time. "Got it for, like, $5 at a truck stop, on tour after Rascal Flatts. Don't remember where. I put the hat on, and all of a sudden everything started happening for us. I wanted Von Dutch to run me off, like, 100 of them, but it's a bootleg. We've tried to find the person who knocked it off, and we're still looking, but right now there's just this one hat."

He shakes his head, then says, "And a lot of people say the hat and sunglasses are a marketing ploy," which is, in fact, a huge understatement. The vitriol has been unyielding, and according to Church, undeserved. "You have to understand," he says, "when we first started having this thing that people call 'outlaw,' that wasn't a category that anybody was looking for. It was supposed to be the kiss of death if you did that. You were done. Nobody thought the sunglasses and hat were a good thing. Nobody!"

What lots of people forget is that Church arrived in Nashville with the dream of becoming a songwriter only. He didn't necessarily want to go onstage, or have people make a big, stinking, highly insulting deal about a promo video with Taylor Swift (or to sometimes be called a "poser asshole").

Now the sun is setting and the whiskey bottle is getting lighter. "See, I can be like I am now," Church is saying, "but when the shades and the hat go on and it's time to go do what you do, every gig I've ever played is there with me. I mean, you pull that hat down, there's juice in that, 100 percent juice. It's the weirdest thing on Earth. It's The Twilight Zone." He pauses, then goes on, almost angrily, "It's a sacred thing. You have your sacred thing? Well, the hat is my sacred thing, OK?"

Like it or not, Church really is all about the hat. The hat, the hat, the hat. And the shades. Let's not forget the shades. And the stubble – that's probably important, too. And the nickname Chief. They're all part of what he's become, and why he is such a different hang, and why he often gets the wide berth that he says he does.