Saturday, March 19, 2011

Eric Church: A Testimonial

A Long Line of Sinners Like Him (You Make It Look So Easy)

Every now and then I come across someone who still thinks country music is sung with a deep twang by chubby dudes in giant ten-gallon hats and two-tone shirts, or by suspiciously butch gals with long hair, high-waisted jeans and button-down shirts who express their innermost feelings by hooking their thumbs into their belt hoops and line dancing. Yee-haw!

They are incredulous, therefore, to keep reading about country music taking the lead when it comes to sales, tour grosses and a loyal, young fan base when the rest of the music industry is falling to pieces. I got news for these folks: Garth Brooks semi-retired a long time ago, and their favorite rockers are all recording in Nashville now.

Check out what modern country sounds like. Sure, they wear Wranglers, hats and boots; they sing about country topics; they have Southern accents. But they are also lean and mean and rock out as hard as anyone.

A good example of the New Country Man is Eric Church. He’s quietly built himself a serious reputation by putting out records where every single song is a winner, and touring his ass off. The pyro in his stage show comes entirely from 100-proof attitude and raw talent, and the crowd burns up with it. He inspires a passionate, rowdy following who sing along word-for-word with gusto, whether he’s delivering a balls-to-the-floor up-tempo bit of rock and roll or a tender ballad.

His 2006 debut, Sinners Like Me, practically whops you upside the head and serves notice: this dude means business. The title track is a rollicking love story to being a man’s man that draws on the rhythms of traditional sea shanties but with jangly guitar, fiddles,  and rousing chorus. It doesn’t matter if your story isn’t the same as his; I don’t know any man who couldn’t relate to it.

Church shows his real songwriting talent with his ballads; “What I Almost Was” is a heartfelt tale of near-disaster that sounds fresh every time you hear it, while “Lightning” is the most haunting paean to execution since Springsteen’s Nebraska. The Lightning in question refers to the electric chair; this song, which builds in energy (like the juice), is delivered by the condemned man, and is perhaps the most oddly joyous speech given by a death-row inmate as any you’ll hear. It’s also exquisitely beautiful.

It is this gorgeous juxtaposition that makes Eric Church something special and also representative of modern country; these folks are highly skilled craftspeople when it comes to songwriting and careful delivery.

This can also be heard on the title track of his second album, Carolina, in which Church lets his voice howl out a coda of grace and pleading beauty to his home state. But the album has its share of gritty old-school material too: “Smoke A Little Smoke,” a recent hit, lays down the rules for what it takes to be a good ole boy. This is where you can also find his first hit, “Love Your Love The Most.”

The opening licks are enough to draw you in, and the list of things he loves keeps you hooked. This album is so good that you could hit any song with a dart thrown blind and come up with a winner. Listen to "Those I've Loved" to get a good idea what this guy is up to. 

Church’s latest EP is a four-track gem titled Caldwell County. It’s a taste to keep things fresh for the crowds who will try their damndest to drown him out with whistles and cheers when he takes the stage this summer. In his trademark baseball cap and aviator shades he exudes an ebullient sexiness that is completely tamed during interviews where he appears humble and quite shy. He's also very naughty: check out the video playing on his YouTube channel promoting his win at this year's ACMs: "Looking For A Happy Ending." (Yep)

It will be interesting to see him opening for Toby Keith this summer; I fancy the audiences will be there just as much for one as the other.

More Modern Country Boys (Check ‘em out):

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