HotStar: Eric Church

Pollstar recently received a phone call from a talent buyer insisting we consider Eric Church for the cover. Here was this industry veteran, surprised for the first time in many years by a country act. Why?

“Oh, I can do this!” Church answered. “Artists and promoters come up to me all the time and say, ‘Man, there’s something weird going on here.’ I get ‘weird’ a lot.”

According to Church, there’s plenty weird going on. For instance, Church doesn’t have country fans.

“Country music fans will like anybody who’s in the Top 10 at the time,” he said. “I think a lot of promoters are expecting to see a regular country show where people come and stand there and clap, mostly at the big hit. Sometimes they’ll leave after the big hit. Not the case with us. It wouldn’t really matter if we played the big hits one, two and three. As a matter of fact, two of our hits are in our first five songs. It’s almost like, I guess, Springsteen back in the day, when he was playing the Jersey area and, to some extent, Seger.”

That wasn’t the only time Bruce Springsteen came up. Church referenced The Boss as a guideline for his show. He’s not one to stand there, hold a guitar and wiggle a kneecap.

“I usually get drenched in sweat. In Charlotte, I had to come off and be packed in ice, and they ran an I.V.,” he said. “I think three nights in a row, the temperature was 100-plus on stage. We have a thermometer and, in Charlotte it was 103; it’s like you go and run for 100 minutes. I read a quote by Springsteen once that if you come off stage and you don’t feel like you’ve run five miles, you didn’t give everything you could.”

What’s also weird is this show and its rabid fanbase happened without radio.

“I’m a very long-term thinking guy,” Church said. “I was never the guy who wanted the big No. 1 smash out of the box that you never recover from. I was always looking 10 years down the line. … I just wanted to make great records.”

Church’s backstory isn’t unique. He slogged it out in North Carolina clubs before getting a publishing deal in Nashville in the early part of this decade. He did his showcases, Capitol Records took him under its wing, and he got an agent in Jay Williams who introduced him to manager John Peets. But that’s where the story takes a turn.

Church came up while the country venue circuit was disappearing. In its void, few country artists were willing to play rock clubs at much lower guarantees, according to Williams. Church and his band stepped right in.

“He takes a rock attitude to a country show,” Williams said, adding that the band is close-knit and has no turnover, making Church more of a frontman than a star with hired guns. “I’ve taken friends who’ve sworn they don’t like country music and they leave huge Eric Church fans. It’s been pretty remarkable to see him go into rooms that don’t traditionally do country music and bring the crowd. It’s a young, very aggressive audience.”

Church can go into Tuscaloosa and Starkville on Monday and Tuesday nights and pack theatre-sized venues, Williams said. Church just broke the bar and attendance records at the Dallas Bull near Tampa on a weekend night. The high-energy shows have turned into events, with tailgating. Audience size doubles each return.

“The people who were coming to the show were running out and telling five people,” Church said. “We’ve never had a Top 10 hit but, if you come to one of our shows, I dare you to figure out what the hits are. My sound guy’s biggest complaint right now is that he can’t get us over the crowd. There’s beers in the air, it’s rowdy and it’s as much about being a part of the show as it is seeing a show.”

In fact, the merch table has a T-shirt with a skull and crossbones on it and reads “I Survived Eric Church Live.” According to the musician, that shirt is bought eight times out of 10 by his many devoted fans.

“We call them the Church Choir,” Church said. “I’ve had them travel over 1,000 miles in a car. We played in Oregon last year and had some people turn up from Arkansas because we weren’t coming back anywhere on the East Coast. They had four days off. I actually did the math and it was just about drive nonstop to the show in Oregon, see the show, sleep three hours and drive nonstop to make it to work the next Monday.”

That’s not unusual.

“A lot of the Choir will get flights from California or Washington for certain shows in North Carolina,” he said. “They’ll have their own reunion shows every year and they’ll coordinate it on the Web site. They’ll get together, stay in the same hotel, they’ll have a party and none of this has to do with me. I don’t help them plan it; I don’t even show up and take a picture with them. They’ll do it on their own and travel to where I’m from to do that every year.”

Church wrapped up the interview to head off to his first vacation in a long time, even if it’s short.

“Normally, every night it takes two or three Advil to get me in and out of bed,” he said. “So I’m going to take about a week off, recharge and hit it again.”