June 06, 2013 : 23:00
“I don’t like to fight, but I ain’t scared to bleed./Most don’t mess with a guy like me.”
The one time Eric Church played Madison Square Garden, he was fired.
Church was a new artist promoting a debut album, and he landed a plum position as the opening act for Rascal Flatts, a trio who play a goopy, mild simulation of country music. Their shows were full of frenzied, fainting female fans—a kind of Beatlemania in boots—and that year Rascal Flatts sold more albums than any other country, pop or rock act.
The two were not well paired: It was like matching biker boots (Church) with a silver cape (Flatts). For years, Church had played smelly bars for a dozen people who ignored him while they watched TV. Now that he’d hit the big time, he was playing for nearly 11,000 people who ignored him.
Opening acts work in a kind of veal pen. Contractually they are allowed to use only part of the stage. They have to limit their volume to between 80 and 90 decibels so the star act will always be louder. And most important, they can’t exceed their allotted time. If they go even 10 seconds over, they are reprimanded. Those are the rules.
After only three shows with Rascal Flatts, Church was unhappy. He’d gotten used to doing things his own way, and now he had to follow rules. So he celebrated the biggest show of his career by doing things he knew would get him fired. He played too loud and tossed in a bit of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” He strutted in areas of the stage he wasn’t allowed to use. He played an extended, eight-minute version of his best-known song, “How ’Bout You.” By the time he exited the stage, he’d exceeded his 20-minute limit by 10 minutes. Because Madison Square Garden is unionized and has curfews, his antics cost Rascal Flatts about $30,000 in penalties. As soon as Church came offstage, Rascal Flatts’s manager fired him. (He was quickly replaced by a pretty 16-year-old named Taylor Swift, who was much more willing to play by the rules.)
Church shadowed the tour for a while, playing clubs in the same cities, often for a dozen people, losing money while carrying expenses of about $5,000 a day. The Rascal Flatts tour was called Me and My Gang; to tweak them Church called his tour Me and Myself.
A month later he was opening for rock legend Bob Seger, which was a better fit. But in the country world, Church had earned himself a reputation as a disrespectful jerk. It’s been a long time since being a rebel was a good business strategy in Nashville, which—despite the frequent use of cowboy imagery—is a go-along-to-get-along industry. Church’s record label was angry. Other bands refused to tour with him. And radio programmers decided they didn’t want an asshole in their format.
“We ended up banished to the wilderness,” Church told a reporter a few years later. “Nobody would touch us. It’s like we were nuclear.” Only a few months after his debut album, Church had already ruined his career by being prideful and obstinate. Or had he?
“Give me a crowd that’s redneck and loud./We’ll raise the roof.”
Exactly six years after Church was fired from a great job he hated, he’s in the middle of another arena tour—this time as the headliner, with two opening acts of his own. “Your job tonight,” he tells the audience in a brawny North Carolina accent, “is to drink and sing and party your asses off.” The folks in the Friday-night crowd in Biloxi, Mississippi began drinking long before this encouragement, and they roar happily as Church and his five-piece band play “Drink in My Hand,” a raucous celebration of alcohol’s relaxing properties. Church’s third album, Chief, was his breakthrough. It included two songs that hit number one on the country charts (“Drink in My Hand” and “Springsteen”), sold more than a million copies and was named 2012’s best album by the Country Music Association, an award voted on by the same Nashville industry that not long ago thought he was an asshole. Church, now 36, deserved the award: Chief wasn’t just the best country album of the year; it was the best rock album too.
How is that possible? Since the 1980s country has been, well, “expanded” if you like the change—“ruined” if you don’t—by influences outside its own traditions. Garth Brooks, who has sold more albums than anyone else in the past 20 years, was an avowed fan of James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and Billy Joel, not to mention Kiss, Boston and Styx. A decade earlier, Waylon Jennings sang “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” in which he wonders why country should stay unchanged. That battle has long been lost.
Country has evolved because the South has evolved. The family henhouse has been supplanted by Walmart, whose ubiquitous stores add to the homogenization of the region. Family-owned general stores have been replaced by Cracker Barrel, which has fake-rural and faux-retro restaurants at highway exits in 42 states, grossing $2.6 billion last year by simulating a rustic down-home experience.
Similarly, the country music industry in Nashville creates a packaged and polished product out of an authentic culture that once existed only on porches and at barn dances. This is wonderful, but it’s also problematic. Fans constantly (sometimes viciously) argue about who is or isn’t real country. The debate is idiotic, because country now has many different traditions, some represented by singers who, in their day, were viewed as untraditional (Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash).
The fight about whether a singer is or isn’t real country illustrates what writer Tracy Thompson describes as “the Southern genius for living in an imagined past.” In her book The New Mind of the South, Thompson—a Georgia native and Pulitzer Prize finalist—notes that historians have been “lamenting the death of Southern identity for 50 or 60 years now.” Symbols that once defined the region—tar-paper shacks, muscadine vines—have vanished. And the once predominantly Republican states of Virginia and North Carolina voted for Barack Obama in 2008, though voters there were “just doing what the South has always done,” Thompson writes, “which is to morph into something else.” (Virginia continued to morph, voting for Obama again in 2012.) In other words, the South’s many traditions include a tradition of change. Confusing and contradictory, right?
Authenticity is a phantom, even in country, seemingly the most genuine of genres. George D. Hay, the announcer and guiding force of country’s venerable Grand Ole Opry radio show, was a PR genius who created a hillbilly image for the music, even when it was fraudulent. He rechristened Dr. Bate’s Augmented String Orchestra as the Possum Hunters, instructed musicians to wear overalls rather than the tailored business suits they usually wore and posed them in cornfields and pigpens for promotional photos—even though they weren’t farmers. (Humphrey Bate, leader of the Possum Hunters, was a physician.) None of this has anything to do with the quality of the music, any more than Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is less of a great song because the singer has breast implants and wears a wig.
As late as the mid-1950s, drums were officially banned from performances at the Grand Ole Opry because they weren’t traditional country instruments. But lately country has entered its heavy metal phase. Here’s small-town Georgia boy Luke Bryan onstage, wearing a Mötley Crüe T-shirt, covering Metallica and (as Church did years ago) “Crazy Train.” There’s Jason Aldean, recently called “a country singer with a hair metal heart” by a Houston Chronicle writer, singing Guns N’ Roses songs in concert.
No one in Nashville leans as close to rock as he does, Church declares. “Not even close. A lot of people are trying to now, because it’s working for us. They do a Guns N’ Roses or an AC/DC song because they want to look like they love rock and roll.”
There are two guitar players in the Eric Church Band. One was in the Black Crowes for four years. The other, who’s husky and tattooed, came from a Tennessee thrash-metal band called Bush Hog. If a crowd seems a little bored, Church slaps them with a cover of Pantera’s “Walk.” His lyrics mention Jennings, Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard while using gobs of distortion, drum loops and other digital tricks.
“I don’t believe country singers should make the same fucking music over and over. Some people hate me. We’ve been polarizing, and that’s okay,” Church says. (“We” is the pronoun country singers use instead of “I.” It’s a way to acknowledge that others have helped you become successful and to declare a humility that might or might not actually be there.)