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It's a chilly but sun-splashed Tennessee afternoon and Eric Church is in great spirits. As usual, Church is on his tour bus, but he's not parked at an arena in some distant locale-he's outside his in-laws' house.
"I'm in Adamsville, Tenn., at Katherine's parents," Church says, referring to his wife of five years. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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"Church did things the old-fashioned way: He built real fans," Deaton says. 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. 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 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. 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. "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"