Count the country singer Eric Church among those surprised that his third release, "Chief," topped the Billboard 200 in its first week back in July with 145,000 sold. That was a drastic improvement on his last set, 2009's "Carolina," which debuted and peaked at No. 17 with 31,000 sold in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The singer himself admits to not believing his good fortune when he heard the news.
"It feels incredible," he said in an interview with Billboard.com. "At least I didn't see it coming. I knew 'Chief' was a special record, and I thought that sometime hopefully we would achieve this level of success. I just didn't think it would happen this way, especially as early in the cycle as we are. It was equal parts surprise, and also very gratifying, too. We've worked very hard to get here and have built our career a different way. So, to have the success that we've had -- without the number one songs or radio songs, we've just not had the exposure at radio or on television that those other artists have had. That's the real anomaly there. That restored my faith in the music, and what I got into this for."
He adds, "I wasn't sure that you could still have success and do it the old school way, so if you keep it about the music -- and you do it the right way, you can still sell a lot of records and not have to use the new model."
And, to further surprise the singer of such hits as "Love Your Love The Most" and "Homeboy," it hasn't stopped with the sales numbers. Chief has been named to years' end "Best Of" lists of such prominent magazines and organizations as Rolling Stone, Spin, and NPR.
"I think the width of the record has been the most surprising thing to me -- from Rolling Stone listing it in their Top 50 albums from NPR to Spin. All these things are places where a country album never usually doesn't show up. I think the width and the depth that this album has taken us to across all genres has been the really cool thing."
Church feels those mentions is good not only for him, but for the genre, as well. "I love country music, and think it's the coolest format. That's why I'm in it. I think if we can land that record on some of those lists and radars, we can make some more people aware of what we're doing. That's something I don't take lightly. It's something I'm very appreciative of."
In the coming year, Church will embark on a headlining role in concert for the very first time, with the tour. "It's a two-faceted thing," he says of the graduation to headliner. "One thing is managing the size of the show, and still having it connect with the audience -- making it feel small. The other side is understanding is when you get to the level that we're going to be at next year with the arenas, and the trucks, and personnel, it's about the culture and environment as much as anything. But, we're going to try to keep it about the music, and keep that sense of waiting all of our lives for this moment when you can play and sell out all of these arenas."
He adds, "We've came from the bars and clubs. We've played every sewer and dive. And, to come from it as quickly as we have, to even be thinking about an arena tour -- I remember last year, we were still playing clubs and theaters. It's just been a whirlwind in the past twelve to eighteen months. It's about making sure that every person who paid their money is getting their money's worth. It's my job to make sure I've set the tone for that culture, and to make sure that everyone else embraces it."
With the holidays here, Church is reflective of the fact that he gets to share his biggest success yet with a special family member, who was a real-life "Chief."
"That was my grandfather," he says fondly. "He was the chief of police for about thirty some odd years in Granite Falls, North Carolina, and he was somebody that, when I hear 'Chief,' I'll look over my shoulder and look for him. To be able to pay homage to him, and have this record be the one that put us on the map with so many people is very fitting and quite an honor that allows me to remember him."