Eric Church's Superstar Moment: 'The Outsiders' Signals Radio, Touring Breakthroughs

Eric Church performs at Lollapalooza 2013 at Grant Park on August 3, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

"I felt it was the right time for us to go to some places creatively that we hadn't been," Church says of the new No. 1 LP.

Eric Church's "The Outsiders" proved to be the ultimate insider this week as it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with a resounding 288,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The tally is the highest opening frame since Beyonce's self-titled set bowed in mid-December with sales of 617,000. Even more impressive, it is nearly double the 145,000 copies Church's last album, 2011's "Chief," sold in its first week.  "Chief" was the first album by a core country artist to launch at No. 1 without having scored a No. 1 hit on the radio since Tim McGraw's "Not A Moment Too Soon" achieved the same feat in 1994.

In an era when individual song downloads usually trump album sales, Church tells Billboard.com that his fans understand that he records albums that are meant to be heard in their entirety and not cherry picked. That's why he thinks his album sales are climbing. "We've always made albums, we've always kept that our focal point…The fans trust that we're going to make the best possible album that we can make," he says, "and if you're going to buy a complete project and not just download a song or two, this is the one to buy…Our fans have always treated and consumed the music that way."

With "The Outsiders," produced by Jay Joyce, Church deliberately wanted to shake up his sound a little bit. "I felt it was the right time for us to go to some places creatively that we hadn't been," he says. "I'm never real comfortable when people think they've got us figured out. This album was very much trying to stay out of that corner where we couldn't be boxed in. "

That's why he felt so strongly that the title track, an aggressive tune with a hard-rock instrumental break, be the first single. He debuted "The Outsiders" on the CMA Awards in November.

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The song stalled at No. 25 on Hot Country Airplay, but it made its impact. "I wanted to show them that this was not going to be a typical record," Church says.

"['The Outsiders'] wasn't so much intended to be a chart success," says Jonathan Henseler,  morning show host and PD at WBFM Sheboygan, Wis., and a self-declared longtime Church fan. "He was trying to get some people's attention and then follow with something that would have radio success."

That is exactly what has happened: second single, "Give Me Back My Hometown," is bulleted at No. 14.

While Church is known more for his live shows than his radio play, he says that's simply because he's never "chased radio" by providing a single that he feels is less than 100% authentic to who he is. "There have been songs of ours that didn't do real well at radio that are some of our biggest songs live: The whole place sings and everybody goes nuts. I try to focus on that.. It's always great when the two things match up, that's the perfect storm."

He's also quick to add that radio has played an integral part in his success and that he feels "Chief's" two Country Airplay No. 1s: "Drink In My Hand" and "Springsteen," helped pave the way for "The Outsiders'" big opening frame.

 "I think sometimes people think we've done it without radio and that's not true," says Church. "We've had people who are fans at radio who have absolutely [gone] to the wall for us. They're really the reason we're here, otherwise we would probably fall by the wayside somewhere. We're just never been an artist that releases songs that race up the chart… Our songs are a little bit complex. Sometimes they can be polarizing. And, to me, that's music, that's art, that's what it should be."

Henseler says he now considers Church "to be an automatic add [at radio], like Kenny Chesney or Carrie Underwood."

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The increased album sales and airplay will hopefully be accompanied by an uptick in ticket sales, says Fielding Logan, director of touring for Q Prime South, which manages Church.  On his first arena headlining tour in 2012, Church averaged 8,000 people a show, according to Logan.  On his 2014 arena outing, which will be announced this spring, Logan says, "there will be less tertiary market buildings that max out at 6,000 or 7,000. It will be more premier NHL, NBA buildings. I'd like to see us at 14,000-15,000 a night…It's all kind of gone hand in hand."

So with all this mainstream success does Church still feel like an outsider? As he explains, his outside-looking-in stance has always been more about attitude and how he pursued his dream. "There would certainly be those who could claim more outsider status," he says. "I think for us, the journey has been unconventional, the success has been unconventional, and I think our decisions have been unconventional. I mean, we've never made very many safe decisions or the decisions that we fought would garner success. We've always made them from the standpoint of 'Is this right artistically?' 'What are our fans going to think?' and 'What's it going to be like at a show?' That's our career really summed up."

And as for "The Outsiders'" anti-music business screed, "Devil Devil ("Prelude: Princess of Darkness"), Church laughs and says no one in the industry should take it as his personal manifesto. "I really wrote that from the standpoint of — I've had my struggles — but I've seen a lot of people who had struggles. I've always been so compelled by the difference between a person who come to this town and has his dreams come true and a person who's standing outside on Broadway playing for tips with a guitar case open and starving to death. The talent difference is pretty close. They can both do it. It just seems so cruel to me the randomness that one makes it and 10 don't. The seedy nature of that is what has always appealed to me."

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboard

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