Eric Church isn’t a guy who likes to color – or write, or sing or play – inside the lines. “He’s found a way to, if not color outside the lines, teeter right on it,” said Travis Meadows, a Nashville-based songwriter who works with Church. “He’s fearless and he knows what he wants to say. And he knows what he won’t say.”
Framed by his omnipresent Ray-Bans and rock-tinged voice, Church’s brand of hard-edged country probes into the raw and true (his song written with Meadows is aptly titled “Dark Side”). His arena tour, which comes Friday to First Niagara Center, will feel a little E Street Band-like in both its marathon length (two and a half hours) and largely improvised set list. (Not coincidentally, “Springsteen” is the title of a Church hit.) His music reaches fans at their core, so much so that Church can play an old song that never hit radio and his audience will react as loudly as they will to smashes like “Drink in My Hand” or “Give Me Back My Hometown.”
It’s Church’s honesty that connects.
“He’s got to believe what he’s writing or he can’t sing it,” said Jeremy Spillman, who co-wrote “Dark Side” and several other Church numbers. “We’ve written a lot of songs that he didn’t cut, and it’s just because he didn’t believe it. I think that’s gone a long way toward him building this empire that he has.”
That empire now includes a tour that has 15 trucks, 12 buses and all the pressures and opportunities of the money machine Church has become. But as the married father of two little boys said in a recent telephone interview, “I’m OK if that all goes away, it still has to be creative.”
Here’s an edited version of our conversation:
Question: Just four years ago, you were playing theaters for crowds of maybe a couple thousand people. Now you’re playing to full arenas. How has the experience changed?
Answer: When (the album) “Chief” happened three years ago, we found ourselves in these bigger rooms for the first time. I don’t think we handled it very well. We just didn’t know how to play the rooms. It’s such a DNA thing for us, these small bars and clubs and theaters. The spontaneity, I think we lost the first round in the arenas. This time, with “The Outsiders” album, we’ve done everything we can to make sure we get that back. Not only is it better for the crowd, we’re playing a different set each night, we’re in the round and it feels like people are just on top of us. But it’s also fun as a musician. It’s different, it’s unique, every night. It reminds me of those days when we used to play those rooms, where it started for us, where we really built it from.
Q: What have you learned about working the large crowds?
A: The main thing we learned is it’s not about what people may or may not have heard on the radio. The show – and how we got here – is those albums. (It’s about) not being afraid to just go play them. Last night we played seven songs in a row that have never been on the radio, and the show was just as high as it was at any other time.
One of the first stops of the tour, we played a song, “Can’t Take It With You,” which is an album track off of our first album. We hadn’t played it in forever. We started into it and the place went crazy. It was that thing: People are paying attention. They know they haven’t seen it in a long time, it’s a rare thing and it’s a cool thing. And I think that that’s what a lot of artists underestimate. I know early on, with this arena thing, we probably did. It’s a lesson that I learned: People are still here because they bought the album and they made the album part of their life.
Q: I heard you’ve been playing songs spontaneously based on signs fans hold up.
A: If they’re close enough, or I see one; sometimes I’ll look up and I’ll see one on the upper level, if I can make it out and read it, yeah, I’ll try. If it’s not something that was on our set list, if it’s something we weren’t going to play, yeah, I’ll try. And the cool thing is the whole back half of the show, really, nobody knows the set, including myself. I kind of make it up as we go. We just keep it loose and I think in doing that, it gives us a lot of room to maneuver.
Q: Sounds very Springsteen-like.
A: That’s who I ripped it from, that’s exactly right. I blatantly stole that one.
Q: How do you challenge yourself from album to album?
A: I’ve always looked at the album process differently than some people. I want to put all the albums up and look at the body of work and be proud that we did something. We mined some new ground, or we contributed not only to country music, but to music. It’s always something I’ve kept a big-picture view on. Not just put up a record, but make sure it’s going somewhere different. That it’s creative. I think the creativity is the thing that’s been bled out of music. The life’s been squeezed out of it. A lot of that is marketing, it’s money, it’s commercialism.
I got into this because I’m a creative person. It’s a matter of letting that continue to live. I want to be able to look back and go, you know what, regardless of whether we’re playing for 20,000 or 2,000 or two, the body of work is what I wanted it to be when I started. I think for me, that’s still the main driver. No matter how big it gets, you can’t let the tail wag the dog. I’ve seen so many artists make an album because the label needed to make a quarterly number and they need to sell a ticket. And that’s the wrong reason to make an album.
Q: Did someone nurture that creativity when you were little?
A: I’ve always been creative. But a lot of that, I’m a product of musically where I’m from. I’m from a place in North Carolina where a lot of bluegrass, folk, roots music was played by guys sitting around on their porches that play better than people on the radio, and they have no idea they’re good because they can’t play as good as their dad or their grandfather does. From a musical standpoint, that was very important to me to be around that environment. My mom would tell stories all the time, I could entertain myself. I wouldn’t have too many kids to play with me. I could create and sing and do it. For me, it was just something I was born with it.
Q: I’m told you like to run around the concourse of the arena before the show. True?
A: If doors are at 6 o’clock, I like to go around 4 or 5. This goes back – I played sports, and I can always remember this anticipation thing that started happening. You smell the popcorn. You feel the night coming. That helps me. When you play a lot of shows – and we do – it gets me going. It gets my body going, no matter how tired I am or what the night before was, it puts me in the right frame of mind.