Eric Church picked up his first No. 1 this week when third album "Chief" debuted atop both the Billboard 200 and Top Country Albums charts. But a recent show at Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyo., provided a reality check. "I stepped off the bus into a pile of horse shit," Church says with a laugh. "It was priceless. That will keep you grounded right there."
Exceeding expectations, Church's EMI Nashville album sold nearly 145,000 first-week units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It also marked the second-highest debut week for a country album this year, behind Brad Paisley's "This Is Country Music" (May 25, 153,000 units). Moreover, "Chief" is only the second country album to debut this year at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, following Blake Shelton's July 12 release "Red River Blue." "Chief" also claims the No. 1 spot on Top Digital Albums with 51,000 downloads, the biggest digital week for a country album this year.
"People were looking at Kelly Rowland's numbers," Church says. "All of a sudden, we blow by everybody and people are asking, 'Who the hell is Eric Church, and how did he sell this many records without No. 1 songs?' I don't tweet. I'm not a Facebook guy. I don't do any of those things. To have this kind of success the first week, it's about the music. It's really restoring my faith."
The North Carolina native played a showcase at New York's Bowery Ballroom on street date -- also featuring the five songwriters who helped him write "Chief"-- and taped an episode of "AOL Sessions." But there weren't any major TV appearances or special marketing plans to launch the album.
"When you see his live shows, you get it. When you hear his albums, you get it," Capitol Records Nashville senior VP of marketing Cindy Mabe says. "He makes albums. He doesn't try to make songs for radio. If you look at where his songs have peaked on the chart, he's not a top-five-song artist. His spin-to-sales ratio is out of the ballpark. He's been building the live show from day one and doing it his own way. He's taken rock clubs over, playing really late shows, and building a base that's not the same base we go after as a format overall. He's got 16-year-old boys that are huge fans."
Church's three albums -- including "Carolina" and "Sinners Like Me" -- have been produced by Jay Joyce, a Nashville-based producer primarily known for working with non-country acts like Audio Adrenaline, Macy Gray and John Hiatt. "I don't use steel guitars, fiddles and stuff other people may have in country music," Church adds. "We're a little more progressive with the sound, but at the same time [album track] 'I'm Getting Stoned' can't get more country. We just gave it a little twist."
Church is touring with Toby Keith through October. Then he'll come home to await the birth of his first child, a boy. After the first of the year, he'll embark on his first tour as a headliner. Lined up as the follow-up to first single "Homeboy" is the track "Drink in My Hand."
"The one thing that we've done right," Mabe says, "is we've let Eric be Eric. What he's done right is make incredible records that have huge word-of-mouth."
"Word-of-mouth has to be the reason," Church says of his success. "There's no other way. In no other category do we stack up to do the kind of numbers we did this week based on past sales, based on past radio success, based on anything. It has to be the fans who took the reins and said, 'We're going to be the one to carry the flag for him. We're going to be the ones that are ambassadors for letting everybody else know about this music.'"