It's fair to say that Eric Church's debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart with "Chief" this week was a little surprising, based on his good-but-not great chart history.
The self-defined "bad boy" earned his first No. 1 album with his third set, which launched with a career-high sales week of 145,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. In doing so, he became the first core country artist to have a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 without having had a No. 1 on the radio airplay-powered Hot Country Songs chart since back in 1994. That's when Tim McGraw's "Not a Moment Too Soon" album hit No. 1 a week before his single "Don't Take the Girl" reached the top of the country songs chart.
The achievement isn't lost on Church. "The numbers are unreal," he says. "People were looking at Kelly Rowland's [new album's] numbers. All of a sudden, we blow by everybody and people were asking, 'Who the hell is Eric Church and how did he sell this many records without No. 1 songs?' "
His having a No. 1 album without a No. 1 Country single is notable because radio airplay is the usual path to success for country acts. That's not to say that Church hasn't had radio hits, of course, but he hasn't had a blockbuster No. 1 single yet -- or even a top five hit -- which makes his No. 1 achievement all the more remarkable.
However, Capitol/EMI Nashville president Mike Dungan thinks too much is being made about the disparity between Church's radio track record and the big first-week album sales. He notes how his "spin-to-sale ratio is extremely high" -- meaning that when his songs are played, consumers react with their wallets.
"When people hear him, they are immediately interested," Dungan says. "There are a lot of No. 1 radio hits that are passive from a sales standpoint, but no one has ever accused Eric of making passive music. Listen to all three of his albums back-to-back and I think you'll agree that there isn't one artist working in this town who has made three records in a row that are this great."
Church admits "Chief" has exceeded his expectations. "We played a lot of shows and we've made other records that people regarded well enough that they were going to buy this record," he says. "There was excitement. I didn't know there was this kind of excitement. 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 is] really restoring my faith."
The North Carolina native has gone as high as No. 10 on the Country Songs chart twice, with "Love Your Love the Most" in 2009 and last year's "Hell on the Heart." The 34-year-old's latest single, "Homeboy," the lead track from "Chief," is backwards-bulleted (thus still gaining in airplay) at No. 15 on Hot Country Songs this week after earlier peaking at No. 13.
More incredibly, Church is the only core country artist to have a Billboard 200 No. 1 without having previously earned a top five single on Country Songs since way back in 1967. That's when Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" topped the albums list on Oct. 14, 1967. Gentry's only top 10 single came later in 1970, when "All I Have to Do Is Dream" reached No. 6.
While Church doesn't have universal support across all of country radio, he does have vocal fans in the industry. "The [album's] sales just reflect what the fans already know," says Nate Deaton, general manager at Empire Broadcasting's KRTY in San Jose, Calif. "Since day one ... we have believed in Eric Church. 'Chief' is a great project. [It's] not a record of three singles and some filler, it is a great album with a start, middle and end."
"I think by and large country radio as a group has missed Eric Church," Deaton continues. "Whether it be bias against different-sounding material or just that programmers don't get the connection he has with fans, they are simply wrong."
LIVE, BABY, LIVE
So, if he didn't have a series of radio smashes on his side, how the heck did he wind up with the No. 1 album in the country? Touring. He's been steadily growing his fan base thanks to positive word-of-mouth and tireless road work since his "Sinners Like Me" album arrived in 2006. That set has sold 414,000 thus far.
"In the very beginning [with "Sinners"], we put him in an opening slot on a superstar tour," says Dungan, "and it ended up just not feeling right. We knew pretty quickly that it would be better to start outside and work our way in than the other way around. He started playing smaller venues, playing later at night to mostly male audiences, and the word of mouth took him from playing for 100 people a night to thousands, so he's worked his way up to where he is now out on the road-and it keeps building."
"He's been building the live show from day one and done it his own way," says Cindy Mabe, senior VP, marketing, Capitol Records Nashville. "He's taken rock clubs over, playing really late shows and building a base that's not the same base that we go after as a format overall. He's got 16-year-old boys that are huge fans. Nobody goes after that demographic."
"The first album, 'Sinners Like Me,' may not have been a radio favorite," says Deaton, "but anyone who has ever been to a Church show knows the impact it had. Watch the fans hold up their boots during 'These Boots,' or sing every word of 'Sinners Like Me' back to him and you'll see the impact the music has."
His last full-length, 2009's "Carolina," debuted and peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard 200 with 31,000 sold in its first week. It has moved 496,000 total in the United States.
In its 123 weeks in release, it has sold at least 2,000-plus copies in every frame save for six. Additionally, his "Sinners" album picked up steam earlier this year when, after basically selling no more than 1,000 copies per week since the beginning of 2008, its sales lit up in late February. Not so coincidentally, that's when "Homeboy" was serviced to radio stations. Clearly, something resonated with fans, who wanted to hear more of Church and sought out his earlier work, thus prompting "Sinners'" sales spikes.
"There's a reason his first two albums are still selling," says Mabe. "He makes albums. He doesn't try to make songs for radio." She, like Dungan, points to his "spins-to-sales ratio" -- a clear indication of how his music is truly connecting with fans.
FAST COUNTRY FACTS
Out of the 28 country acts that have topped the Billboard 200 in its 55-year history, only Eric Church, Tim McGraw, Bobbie Gentry, Linda Ronstadt and Olivia Newton-John did so without claiming an earlier No. 1 Country Song.
Ronstadt and Newton-John's first No. 1 albums ("Heart Like a Wheel" in 1975 and "If You Love Me Let Me Know" in 1974, respectively) were scored back when both were swimming in country waters. Ronstadt notched a string of top 40 country singles in the '70s (including a No. 1) and tallied two Country Music Assn. Awards nominations that decade. As for Newton-John, she had seven top 10 country singles in that same decade, plus four CMA nods. She even won the trophy for female vocalist of the year in 1974.
In terms of total chart-toppers by country acts on the Billboard 200, the number of men with No. 1s far outweighs the ladies and duos/groups. Fourteen dudes have led the list: Church, Tim McGraw, Garth Brooks, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Kenny Chesney, Billy Ray Cyrus, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, John Michael Montgomery, Kenny Rogers, Blake Shelton, George Strait and Keith Urban.
Our 10 leading ladies? Bobbie Gentry, Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Olivia Newton-John, LeAnn Rimes, Linda Ronstadt, Taylor Swift, Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood and Gretchen Wilson. And finally, the four No. 1 duos/groups: Dixie Chicks, Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts and Sugarland.
The vast majority of country acts that topped the chart did so after the list began using SoundScan's point-of-sale data on the list dated May 25, 1991. Of the 28, only six notched a No. 1 in the so-called pre-SoundScan era (Cash, Gentry, Campbell, Ronstadt, Newton-John and Rogers).