Eric Church

Eric Church performs during day 1 of 2014 Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival, April 25, at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California.

Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Stagecoach

A few songs into his set at Madison Square Garden Friday (Oct. 17) night, Eric Church stopped to reflect briefly on his ascent from playing bars and clubs to headlining arenas.

He's played MSG once before, he noted, and he remembers the exact date: eight years and three days ago. Back then, in 2006, Church was a youngster opening for country-juggernauts Rascal Flatts. He played too long and got quickly booted from their tour, to be replaced by a young Taylor Swift (who thanked Church for this opportunity at last year's CMA's when she received her Pinnacle Award). But here he was years later, triumphant, a self-proclaimed outsider playing the ultimate insider gig.

Eric Church: The Billboard Cover Story

Church worked his way into this position album by album. His debut, Sinners Like Me, came out in 2006; by the time of his third full-length, Chief, he had honed his approach. Chief showcased his signature look on its cover -- stern, bearded, baseball hat, aviators -- and hit the top of the Billboard 200. It also contained "Springsteen," a top 20 hit on the Hot 100 that happened to be superior to anything the Boss had released in decades.

This year, Church put out The Outsiders, which debuted at No. 1 and sold 288,000 copies in its opening week. Church writes or co-writes almost all his songs, and over time, he has gradually stripped away some of the pleasing top-line melodies to reveal a heavy, gritty core underneath.

It's not easy to maintain a fiction of being on the outside in a stadium full of people singing your songs. But Church used sequencing to emphasize his difference: both the acts that played before him have strong links to traditional country. Brandy Clark writes sharp, impeccable songs that blaze their images in your head and fit into a long history of great country songs by women trying to deal with men who are often crazy and usually drunk. Dwight Yoakam, a genre stalwart in the late '80s and '90s, followed Clark with a no-frills set of speedy honky-tonk, wearing enough fringe to make Stevie Nicks jealous.

Eric Church Scores Second No. 1 Album With 'The Outsiders'

So when Church showed up, he was already guaranteed to seem separate from what came before. Yoakam's lead guitarist played riffs descended from Chuck Berry while making hip movements that evoked Elvis; in contrast, one of Church's musicians looked like he had recently escaped from ZZ Top. The singer started the show with the title track of his new album, giving his band a chance to pummel aggressive riffs, much closer to hard rock than country. Church has a fiery, powerful voice and plenty of on-stage swagger. When he really wanted the crowd to believe something, he lifted one hand; if things felt especially urgent, he raised both. At one point he was shaking so vigorously his guitar strap slipped off his shoulder.

But this singer isn't breaking entirely with tradition. After all, he performed "Lotta Boot Left To Fill," a song that calls for fidelity to country's past with the line, "I don't think Waylon done it that way" (referencing famous '70s Outlaw singer Waylon Jennings). He also did "Guys Like Me" and "Drink In My Hand," which explore the same themes as half the songs on country radio. Church kept returning to the pretty melodies: he loves to shred, but his biggest hits are the softer ones, the songs that allow him to push into the tender, high end of his vocal range: "Carolina," which had the grandeur of U2's "With or Without You" when performed live, and "Give Me Back My Home Town," a top five hit on the Country Songs chart.

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His main misstep occurred in the middle of the show, when he played "Dark Side," a ballad that seemed to suck the energy from the room, and followed that with "Devil, Devil Princess Of Darkness," an over-long song accompanied by a giant devil that inflated opposite the stage. Contrast that with his appealing performance of "These Boots," a wistful number from his first album. When he sang this, a number of crowd members took off their shoes and raised them over their heads. Church borrowed some footwear from the crowd and finished the song by tenderly serenading a pink boot.

Church saved the best for last, ending the show with an acoustic version of Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The U.S.A." and using that to segue into his own tribute to the Boss. "Springsteen" shows Church at his finest -- it's a compact and affecting song, with a muddy, rugged-sounding drum tugging against a clear, uplifting melody. The hook is wordless, just a series of "whoa-ohs," and Church led the crowd through the chorus again and again. All the outsiders were together, inside, happily singing along.