You saw it coming.
Or we did. Or he did. Or something.
Anyway, we’re talking about Eric Church calling his new album “The Outsiders,” and coming at country stardom with an outside view that makes him even bigger than a red-hot genre, without abandoning it altogether.
He’s the ultimate insider outsider.
Note Church is playing The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on Saturday. No one says the Cosmo can’t book a country act, especially when it’s one of those prestige Vegas grabs of an arena-level attraction in a smaller room. But The Cosmopolitan has branded itself more with alternative pop, and if a casino obsessed with its own self-image is going to book a country act, they’ll make damn sure it’s a cool one.
“The Outsiders,” Church’s fourth, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard in February, and its sales mark of 288,000 in its first week was the biggest since Beyonce’s in the peak of the Christmas buying season.
Church wasn’t able to talk to the Las Vegas Review-Journal this time, so we did what any recycling-conscious newspaper would do: found quotes from two past interviews (a lot of which didn’t run at the time) to back up boasts he makes in the new album’s title track, just to show you this outsider stuff didn’t come from out of nowhere.
■ “They’re the in crowd, we’re the other ones, It’s a different kind of cloth that we’re cut from.”
Church keeps testing country’s already-tolerant limits. Still, the scrappy, moody track — one reviewer called it “some modern country version of a prog-rock opera” — stalled on the radio charts. So Church followed it up with the No. 5 hit “Give Me Back My Hometown.” Lyrically, it’s a safe venture into country’s current craze of pining for an artificial past. But musically, is it cool as Church doles it out with a moody, U2-ish arrangement.
“I like being the guy that’s kind of out there,” he said in 2012. “I’m not a guy that’s ever been interested in being the mainstream singer of the format guy. And if you’re there that’s a dangerous place to be. I would rather be a guy that’s always doing something different, that’s always pushing the envelope.”
■ “We let our colors show, where the numbers ain’t, with the paint where there ain’t supposed to be paint.”
Church doesn’t write or arrange by numbers; he makes Nashville, Tenn., come to him instead of giving the industry what he thinks it wants.
Talking about his big song “Springsteen” in 2012, Church said, “I don’t know that I sat there and thought, ‘Well that sounds like a hit.’ It’s long, it’s got a weird sonic (vibe), a lot of space in it, which is kind of different for country radio.”
Likewise the “Chief” album cut “Hungover &Hard Up,” which he described as “a very country lyric but it’s got some weird stuff in it. … Weird guitars and weird loops. Stuff like that just makes it more modern and puts a different spin on it.”
He’s also a guy who still thinks about the album as a cohesive whole and encourages fans to listen to “The Outsiders” in sequence. In 2012, he said he left a couple of probable hits off the “Chief” album. “Most people, they would put the hits on the records, but it just didn’t fit the record for me. … It’s hard to take great songs off a record, but I feel like we have to. It doesn’t make the project sound right. We still keep it about the album, this one individual piece of work.”
■ “Wide-open rocking, That’s how we roll.”
Church isn’t the only country guy to rock out, but not many of them get invited to open for Metallica, or get equal billing with The Cure and Outkast at the BottleRock festival in Napa Valley at the end of May.
It’s all about “taking what your influences did and then doing your thing,” he said in 2012. “I still get beat up a lot by people saying, ‘he doesn’t use fiddle, he doesn’t use steel guitar.’ … It pisses me off frankly, because there should be a natural evolution. That’s healthy.”
While Merle Haggard “grew up listening to Lefty Frizzell, or George Jones grew up listening to Hank (Williams) Sr. or Hank Snow, I grew up listening to that stuff but I also listened to Metallica. I listened to AC/DC. I grew up in the ’80s, man! That made its way into who I am.”
■ “Yeah, the player’s gonna play, and a haters gonna hate, and a regulator’s born to regulate.”
“I think any time you can make music and it evokes dialogue and an intellectual response or a nonintellectual response, just people having a response … I think you’ve made the kind of music you need to make,” he said in 2011. “It’s not just them listening to it and going, ‘That’s great,’ and moving on. Or, ‘I hate that,’ and moving on. It’s at least making them think about it and challenge some of the meanings of it, and I think that’s healthy.”
■ “A band of brothers, together, alone, the outsiders.”
No one really likes to feel like an insider. “I am part of the Lady Antebellum secret society” is not something you will hear a dude say at a country dance hall (unless a gal just really needs to hear it). But Church worked hard to groom his fan base before Nashville started paying attention.
“I’m five and a half years in and kind of took my own path through the wilderness,” he noted when he was up for the Academy of Country Music’s new artist award in 2011. “To get back here doing it our own way is a cool thing, a gratifying thing.”
“We’ve been doing this for a while, and sometimes people paid attention and sometimes people didn’t,” he said the following year (oddly enough, he would have to wait one more year for “Chief” to be the ACM’s Album of the Year in 2013).
“I’ve played enough sewers — I’ve played every sewer actually — that I understand how hard it is to sell out arenas. I understand what that means to look out and see 10,000, 12,000 people and how rare that is.”
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0288.