Church is renovating and reinventing in his creative life as well. He's putting the finishing touches on his fourth album, "The Outsiders," which is due Feb. 11 on EMI Records Nashville. Church was already at the vanguard of contemporary country's rock movement, but The Outsiders blurs the lines even further. The first single, the title track, contains even more of the rough electric guitar and big booming drums that define Church's live shows. It's dark and loud, and without the North Carolina accent in Church's vocals it might find itself in between Kings of Leon and Linkin Park on rock radio. But its rebel attitude ("We saddle 'em up and ride in the pouring rain/We're the junkyard dogs, we're the alley cats") and the twang in the vocals put it squarely in the world of country music. Like a modern-day Lynyrd Skynyrd, Church manages to be simultaneously more rock'n'roll and good-old-boy than anyone else out there-no easy task.
"'The Outsiders,' the first single, is a great taste of what this album is going to be," Church says. "We were pushing the envelope and doing things that we hadn't done, creatively and artistically."
It's a surprising move from an artist who finally became an insider with his third studio album, 2011's "Chief," which hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 -- Church's first set to do so-and has sold 1.7 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Chief" also won album of the year honors from both the Country Music Assn. (CMA) and the Academy of Country Music (ACM). Following up on that set (not counting this year's live album, "Caught in the Act"), Church could be on the verge of an even bigger breakthrough with The Outsiders-provided fans and radio can ride through the title track's sharp left turn.
Church debuted "The Outsiders" at the CMA Awards on Nov. 6, and made an immediate wave. "It was a loud, bombastic, fiery performance that generated a lot of talk all over the social networks and around the water cooler," Universal Music Group Nashville (UMGN) senior VP of marketing Cindy Mabe says. "There was love, hate-'This isn't country music!' The song screamed out for an opinion-a passion score if you will. Fans certainly knew it wasn't the sixth single from 'Chief.'" The song, which premiered on radio through Clear Channel's accelerator program, moves 29-28 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart, a new peak. However, even if radio is taking its time, Church's fans seemed to be behind the track from the beginning: It has sold 261,000 downloads. Sales pushed the song to No. 6 on the Nov. 9 Hot Country Songs chart, but this week it falls 17-20.
Church's new sound isn't the only thing that's different-he's traveled a unique, winding road throughout his career. He started playing gigs at a local bar in his native North Carolina during his senior year in high school. In 2001, he moved to Nashville, with his sights set on being a songwriter, and earned a publishing deal with Sony/ATV Tree. "I came here to be a songwriter," Church says, "I never really came to town to be an artist. I didn't know how to do it. But there were so many people in town that kept saying, 'We love this or that song, but it sounds like it's his.' When that started coming back time and time again we started thinking, 'Maybe we're going about this wrong.' That's when we started at least entertaining that I should be an artist."
UMGN chairman/CEO Mike Dungan inked Church to a deal with Capitol in 2004. Instead of working with one of Nashville's many well-known country producers, Church linked with rocker Jay Joyce (the Wallflowers, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Cage the Elephant). Joyce has produced all four of Church's albums, and shares his iconoclastic approach.
"Eric and I both believe in making albums. They are time pieces," Joyce says. "The radio thing doesn't really fit into that sort of equation. That doesn't mean we don't appreciate the radio success, but one thing from Eric that sets him apart is he's not wandering around Music Row getting opinions from song pluggers, A&R people or producers."
Thanks to this mind-set, Church has developed a reputation as something of a wild card who doesn't always play by industry rules. Church rarely performs on TV, and generally avoids Twitter, Facebook and the other social media tools most artists employ to stoke sales. But a more notorious example is the Rascal Flatts tour in 2006, from which Church was fired when he played an overlong set as the opening act at New York's Madison Square Garden. He was replaced by then-newcomer Taylor Swift, who recently commented in the press room after the CMA Awards that she appreciated Church for providing her with a great opportunity. But the setback was an opportunity for Church: Forced off that arena tour-and, he claims, blackballed from others-he hit the club circuit as a headliner, building a loyal base one show at a time.
"Church did things the old-fashioned way: He built real fans," Deaton says. "They feel like they are a part of something. They go to the shows and they scream for two hours."
Church's bad-boy rep is a throwback to the outlaw days of artists like Waylon Jennings who marched to their own tune and spoke their minds. "He's a tough guy, but he gets a lot of his energy from that," Joyce says. "He's not hard to deal with. He's not an asshole. He's just opinionated. He believes in things being a certain way and that drives him to do it the way he wants to do it. That's where he gets a lot of his creative energy from-that 'I'll show them' [attitude]."
That's exactly what Church did when "Chief" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and Top Country Albums, even though he had yet to score a top five single. The chart-topper built on the growing foundation of his previous albums, 2009's Carolina and 2006's Sinners Like Me-which have sold 715,000 and 590,000, respectively-but the singer jokes that people were scratching their heads and saying, "Who the hell is Eric Church?" That began to change after the first single from Chief, "Homeboy," peaked at No. 13 on Hot Country Songs. Follow-up "Drink in My Hand" became Church's first No. 1. "The first time I heard 'Drink in My Hand,' it was like my hair was on fire," WNOE New Orleans OM Don Gosselin says. "I started texting everyone at EMI that it needed to be the next single. I described the song as 'the Rolling Stones meets Willie Nelson.' Eric Church has so much crazy talent that it is hard to contain him to just one format. And why should we? Great music is great music."
"Radio may have missed some of the earlier songs, but the fans did not," Deaton adds.
Church followed "Drink in My Hand" with "Springsteen," which was No. 1 for two weeks. "It can be misleading because we've had some absolute partners at radio and they've stood up in front of a fire and said, 'I believe. I love this! I'm playing it,'" Church says. "A lot of those places gave us a platform to jump off from. For me, it's always been about passion. You can have a song that rockets to No. 1 and all the numbers look great, but if it's not invoking passion in people, you're not going to go anywhere-no tickets, no album sales."
When "Chief" won big at the CMA and ACM awards shows, he felt that the country industry had finally accepted his rocked-out sounds and unorthodox ways. "It meant more to me than I thought it would," he says. "To people in rock, we were country. To people in country, we were rock. We didn't have a place that we belonged, and that was the first night I really felt like we belonged. I was proud of that and proud to be a part of the format at a really cool time."
Emboldened by this newfound acceptance, Church set about recording "The Outsiders" at an old church in East Nashville that Joyce had bought and converted into a studio. ("Chief" was recorded in the producer's basement home studio.) Their new lair was a perfect, if ironic, base for "The Outsiders." "Jay had to become an ordained minister to purchase the church, and anybody who knows him knows that that's its own joke -- it tells itself," Church says.
NEXT PAGE: "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"
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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.