With "The Outsiders," due in February, Church is bringing his harder-rocking country sound to the next level. "It's important for the health of the format that we all don't follow the leader, that we branch out"

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Church wrote or co-wrote 121 songs for the album, eventually whittling that down to 11 tracks. One standout is "A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young," co-written with Jeremy Spillman, a ballad that finds Church mulling over the fact that he's outlived Jesus and Hank Williams Sr. "You look in the mirror for the first time and there's a couple gray hairs around your temple and you think back to when you were 25," he says. "I didn't think I'd live long enough to have gray hair. We've been doing this for awhile. Fans have been growing with me. I'm not afraid of the fact that I'm 36. I'm proud."

The album is tied together by the renegade spirit of the title track, which perfectly sums up Church's career. "A lot of people think it's ironic that we've had the success we've had over the last couple of years, won awards and had No. 1s, and it's called The Outsiders," Church says. "But it's about the journey to get to that point. I certainly have a place in my heart for anybody who is different, anybody who is doing things that other people aren't doing. I've been that person. This song's for a 13- or 14-year-old kid who doesn't quite have it all together yet and he's the outcast. It's a gladiator song. It's a locker-room song. It fires you up."

"Most people are focused on singles," Church says. "They are focused on downloads. I can't do records that way. I don't think you can ever really dive into what an artist is about after a song or two. You have to read the whole book, not just one chapter."

Church has long maintained that his artistic evolution may have an end date, noting that he may not record forever. "It's such a process to make an album for me," he says with a sigh. "I don't think I could do it over and over, because how many times can you push the envelope? How many times can you grow? When I get to that point when we're not doing that anymore, I don't care to make records."

In the meantime, Church is making records-his own way-and hoping his success might pave the way for other fellow outsiders. "It's important for the health of the format that we all don't follow the leader, that we branch out and we find our own path," he says. "The greatest thing that I could ever hope happens out of all of this is to have a record label president sit across from a new artist they just signed and say, 'Blow my mind-go crazy!'"

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.