Who Is That Unmasked Man? Without His Trademark Shades, Eric Church Talks Career, Drive and That Outlaw Image
Capless and wearing designer glasses instead of his trademark Ray-Bans, Eric Church showed up at a radio industry event on Thursday looking less like country’s renegade superstar and more like a guy who’d just left the elementary school carpool line.
“Are you really a badass?” his interviewer, radio host Lon Helton, grilled him. “Or do you just play one in country music?”
Church, 42, just laughed, then fell silent for a thoughtful moment. “I don’t know the answer,” he finally replied.
Of course, he acknowledged, he’s been tagged for years with a “badass and outlaw” image. But, he said, “I hope that, if it comes from anywhere, it comes from the fact that what the music is — the quality of the music and that we play three-hour shows and give everything we have — has turned into its own thing.”
In other words, yes, he’s a badass, and he doesn’t need to wear cool shades to be one.
Church spent almost an hour at the Country Radio Seminar, the national convention held yearly in Nashville, talking about his creative process to a roomful of broadcast executives — the outsider offering an inside view of his take-no-prisoners pursuit of self-expression.
From his very first album, in 2006, Church has chased his creativity far more than record sales and spins, and he’s let the chips fall.
That’s meant, among many other things, getting kicked off a 2006 Rascal Flatts tour because he kept running over his set’s scheduled time. (Church acknowledged he deserved to be fired. “I wanted to do things my way,” he said, “and even then, I did,” adding, “that, honestly, is what got us here.”) It’s meant successfully going toe to toe with his label head over releasing “Smoke a Little Smoke” as a single; the celebration of weed was considered controversial in 2009. And it’s meant putting his face, shrouded in his now-signature ball cap and aviator Ray-Bans, on the cover of his seminal 2011 album, Chief.
Church told the story of how the iconic image accidentally came to be. His manager, John Peets, actually snapped the pic, in need of a subject so he could try out a new camera.
“As soon as he turned that picture around, I said, ‘That’s the cover of the next album,’” Church recalled.
Of course there was pushback from the label, he added. “It’s ‘you can’t wear a hat because you have hair,’” Church said. “And then it was ‘you can’t wear shades because you have pretty eyes.’”
“Which is weird,” he added with a chuckle.
But Church argued that the picture accurately projected the artist whom his rapidly building fan base was becoming so devoted to. “When I saw that, it just spoke that to me,” he said. “It’s about that guy — the guy that’s been trying to break out and turn into that.”
Church identifies his decision as the moment his appearance and self-image fused completely. He’s since ridden it to country music’s upper reaches, and over the years, he has continued to be relentlessly uncompromising as he keeps pushing himself to his limits.
His latest recording sessions, completed in just the past week, undeniably prove that point. The North Carolinian told how he took over a favorite restaurant, open only during the warmer seasons in his native state, and transformed it into a studio. He and a team of musicians and songwriters then set about to write and record 28 songs in 28 days.
“I felt like it was time to do something nuts, especially creatively,” he explained. “So I would write a song in the morning. We cut it that night. I’d get back up and write the next day. We’d cut it that night. We removed all of the barriers about what people think of the song, what you think the song is. Just let it be the most creative thing for that one day, chase that as hard as you can, and move on … And you really don’t know what it is till the end. For me, it’s as far out there as I’ve gotten on the limb.”
The pace, Church revealed, nearly broke him. “I couldn’t shut it off,” he said. “So there were three or four days I wasn’t sleeping … But I think by getting that far out there and by almost dying, it opened up some really great stuff creatively because I was really locked in.”
Interviewer Lon Helton asked the most pertinent question: Did any music worth sharing come out of this marathon?
“Determining now,” Church replied mirthfully, before declaring: “A lot — and that’s surprising. I’m not just saying that. I’m very hard on myself. … So for me, I have pretty good radar on that, and it’s a lot of great stuff, and I think that’s because we did it that way. … As a songwriter, that song is born in that room, and too many times we end up trying to record it six months later. … But it’s born that day. It’s born that moment. So my goal was to try to record on the same day it was born.”
Church gave his audience a taste of the new music, performing a song, perhaps to be titled, “Jenny,” that’s a high-spirited romantic enticement: “Come on, Jenny, let’s go, Jenny/ Let’s blow this popcorn stand / Come on down the road, Jenny / Jenny, let me be your man.”
Church explained the inspiration: a broken generator that had workmen around him talking about fixing the “genny.”
“And I couldn’t get it out of my head,” the artist said. “So this different ‘Jenny’ happened.”
Just another day for a badass following his muse, wherever it takes him.