The Devil & Mr. Church

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Photograph by Andrew Hetherington

There’s something about a chainsaw that really works for Eric Church. To each his own, of course, but out on his wooded, undeveloped 700-acre property just west of Nashville, he’s conspicuously deep into it, with six blazing-orange Stihls and a Husqvarna 359 at the ready, all lined up in a shed. “I’ve just got an obsession with saws,” he’s saying. He ponders each one separately, intent on an afternoon of tree downing. He throws the big Husqvarna into one of his 4x4s and bounces to the end of a dirt road and up into the woods. Today he’s wearing camo duck boots with a Gerber knife and rattler-wasting pistol belted to his waist, with a rifle handy, to be leveled against the toothy, snarling coyote-dog hybrid known as a coydog, should one leap from the brush.

He’s got stuff on his mind. For one, he just released a promo video for his new album, The Outsiders, which featured a clip of Taylor Swift at the recent Country Music Awards, thanking Church for getting fired from the 2006 Rascal Flatts tour (for playing too long and too loud) because it enabled her to take his place and become a teen country sensation. Only, superimposed over her image was a gloved hand writing out the words “One will rise and one will fall”. Ambiguous as it was, Church-haters nonetheless divined in it a Swift-directed threat and labeled the video “despicable, sickening, and downright dangerous.” Within hours, the video was gone. So, there’s that.

Now he’s found a tree to his liking. He gives it a once-over, moving around it, checking out the path of its likely drop, then snaps the saw to life. The racket buffets a few butterflies. He starts his cut at a rakish angle, rips about halfway through the tree, pulls the saw out, leans on the tree, returns the saw to the cut, bears down to regurgitate a cloud of wood chips, takes a few steps back, and down she goes – right into the grip of some branches from the tree next to it. It just hangs there, limply suspended. Well, crap. That one will have to go, too, as will any other tree that gets in his way.

Most of the time, he does this kind of thing alone. Nobody likes it, not his wife, not his manager, not his label – nobody. “We’re talking 3,000-, 4,000-pound trees, where I’m strapped up next to one of those, in the middle of nowhere. I mean, if something happened to me out here, nobody would know where I was to come get me.” He kind of grins. He looks happy. “It puts you in your own world. I wrote 20 songs for the new album just cutting. I solve a lot of problems out here. Yeah, man, as crazy as it sounds, it keeps me sane.”

Church, 36, built his reputation on his live shows. They’re what brought him back after the Flatts firing, and they really are something else. Let’s say he’s singing about stealing some cowboy’s girl and the cowboy don’t like it none: Right after he hurls the dare “Keep on looking at me that way,” the boys in the audience start to bash on each other and draw blood. It just happens. “You can set your clock to it,” says Church. Conversely, when he strolls through the sweet, nostalgic romance of “Springsteen,” the boys take their girls, lean them over the balcony railing, and start to fornicate. This just happens, too. He has that effect. “If they aren’t fighting, they’re screwing,” Church says. “Saginaw, Michigan, we had four or five fights that night, and up on the railing, eight or 10 couples screwing, everyone responding like this is the last show they’ll ever see. I don’t think we encourage any of this. I’m just very aggressive and intense onstage.”

Which is true. He’s ferocious onstage: Witness the bombastic outrage he visited upon the CMAs last November, when he played the title track to The Outsiders, its misty opening yielding to a massive wall of guitars and smoke-and-sparks pyro worthy of an arena, such that country-music traditionalists everywhere fainted and had to be carted off on stretchers, only to come to and blast the performance as “the worst excuse for country music I’ve seen” and “rock-rap crap.”

More than one observer, however, has noted that much the same was said of Johnny Cash when he took it upon himself to go his own way and play a little Bob Dylan. And it’s more along the belligerent, industry-upsetting lines of Cash – as well as Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Steve Earle, all of them part of the so-called outlaw generation of country musicians – in which Church positions himself. These days the term rebel is often appended to his name. You’ll find no fuddy-duddy fiddles in his music, nor steel guitars, and banjos only if they’re whacked-out distorted. He’s played Lollapalooza (“I was stunned at how pussy 90 percent of those bands were,” he said afterward) and has gone out of his way to release singles with questionable radio potential, like “Two Pink Lines” (about teen pregnancy, from his 2006 debut album, Sinners Like Me) and “Smoke a Little Smoke” (about his fondness for weed, from his second album, 2009’s Carolina). Neither of the songs did much for Church in Nashville, but his relentless, dogged touring – one year, doing 290 shows – built him a solid, rabidly supportive fan base among like-minded misfits. When his third studio album, Chief, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart in 2011, it did so without the backing of anything close to a top-five hit single, a Nashville rarity.

Then again, some of what Church does seems a little unfortunate. Onstage, he can get all Lynyrd Skynyrd–y and start bellowing, “I like my country rockin’. How ’bout you?” which maybe he ought to leave alone. Until recently he sold Outlaw-branded merchandise on his website, which you can bet had Johnny Cash retching in his grave. And it’s this kind of stuff that tends to tick off country-music diehards. “Eric Church isn’t an ‘Outsider’; he’s a fucking conformist,” a blogger named Trigger recently wrote at “He’s a marketeer . . . who has Svengalied a bunch of disenfranchised country fans into believing he’s offering any type of alternative to pop country, when in truth he is more of a tool of the mainstream pop-country industrial complex than anyone.”

“Wow, that’s a rough one,” says Church, hearing this for the first time. He’s in a trailer parked on his property, where he’s building his dream house. Resting on a table in front of him is the Gerber knife, the pistol, and the .25-06 Remington with a sweet Leupold scope. Scratching his neck, he looks seriously irritated for a moment, like he’s about to grab one of those nearby tools of destruction and go after the messenger. Then he seems merely at a loss for words. Finally, he gets his small-town North Carolina twang working again and says, “Have we done it our own way? Yeah. How we are is popular now, but it wasn’t when we first did it, so what am I supposed to do?” He puts his hands on the table. “I mean, it’s a possibility that we’re marketing it now. But we’ve been that person the whole time.”

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.

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