Not long before the release of Eric Church’s outstanding sophomore CD, Carolina, in 2009, I hopped on the bus with Eric, his wife Katherine, his publicist and his manager and rode through the night from Nashville to Eric’s Granite Falls, NC, hometown. Before I wrote a story about Carolina, Eric wanted to show me his Carolina, through his eyes. He wanted me to see the places and meet some of the people who helped shape the man and the artist he had become. And nothing he showed me had more meaning to him than the cabin his late grandfather, Ralph “Rusty” Barlow, built with his own hands on 100 acres in a gorgeous valley teeming with wildlife and traversed by the Elk Creek where Eric and his grandpa used to fish. [See photo of Eric on the porch of the cabin his grandfather built]. Having retired as the long-time chief of police in Granite Falls before his death in 1995, Rusty was known to most people simply as “Chief.” Fast-forward about 15 years and the name “Chief” lives on, but this time it’s Eric’s band who first began calling him that after he got contacts and started wearing sunglasses and a ball cap. They didn’t know about his lifelong connection to that name, so perhaps there’s a bit of destiny involved in Eric having acquired the same moniker his grandpa had. And, when you think about it, there’s just a bit of irony in having Eric—notorious for eschewing whatever career rules might confine others—and his grandfather—a man sworn to uphold the rules—both called “Chief.” But I’m guessing the original “Chief” was more concerned about keeping the peace than about arresting every jaywalker and sidewalk spitter. I’d like to think so.
And I’m guessing he’d also be proud of the man and the artist his grandson is today, the official release date of Eric’s third CD, Chief. When I talked with Eric at the gold record party for Carolina not long ago, I’d just received my copy of Chief that day, but hadn’t had time to listen to all of it yet. I told Eric that, and he looked at me and smiled and just said, “You’re gonna love it.” And he’s right. It’s nothing short of excellent. And that’s true, in no small part, because Eric is playing even less by the rules on this record than on his previous two. From start to finish, the production and the grooves of each tune are totally unpredictable. And, while it’s hard to top chart-climbing first single “Homeboy” for emotional impact, there simply is not a weak link anywhere on this record. Will some of the songs have to grow on you? Probably so. But that’s only because they are so different not only from each other, but from absolutely everything else on the radio. It might take a second or third listen to a couple of songs to put aside your own preconceived ideas of what country music should sound like and embrace these songs for what they are . . . works of art. But it’s worth the effort.
The album kicks off with “Creepin’,” written by Eric and Marv Green, and just as the opening strains have you convinced it’s going to be a swampy Tony Joe White-type tune, the drone of a banjo kicks in and before you know it, it’s a balls-to-the-wall rocker, complete with screaming guitar solo . . . or is it? There’s a good chance Eric might view that as the ultimate compliment about his music . . . the inability to pigeonhole or categorize it. It is, quite simply, Eric Church music. But one thing is absolutely consistent with Eric’s music—no matter what the groove or subject matter, the lyrics are uniformly excellent. Whether it’s That need-you-back comes over me like ivy crawlin’ over every tree, just creepin’ from the opening cut or I’m a long-gone Waylon song on vinyl, I’m a back-row sinner at a tent revival, but she believes in me like she believes her Bible . . . and loves me like Jesus Does, from “Like Jesus Does,” the images are always there, always vivid and always powerful.And the CD’s highlights will change, depending on the mood or situation of the listener. You say you just put in a killer 40-hour week? Then pick up a cold one, crank up “Drink in My Hand” and let the stress just rock away. Did you just hear a song that instantly transported you back to your first love in high school? Then listen to “Springsteen,” a wonderfully crafted tune about how melodies and memories are so often intertwined. And your ex tied the knot today and you don’t know how to cope? Well, with apologies to the DEA, “I’m Getting Stoned” offers one possible course of action. And if you’ve given love your best shot and it just didn’t work out for you, kick back and listen to the infectious melody and image-filled lyrics of album finale “Over When it’s Over”—Wish we could do it over, damn it, Baby, damnit, we had it in the air, but just couldn’t land it. It hits the emotional nail on the head for everyone who’s ever come close to winning at love, without quite doing it.
And it, along with the other 10 tunes on Chief, confirms once again that Eric Church is someone Nashville needs. He’s walking that precarious line between pushing country’s boundaries and honoring the genre’s roots better than anyone else in town. Kudos, Eric, for another great record.—David Scarlett
Porch Photo:David Scarlett
Chief Track List:
1. ‘Creepin’ (Eric Church, Marv Green)
2. ‘Drink In My Hand’ (Eric Church, Michael P. Heeney, Luke Laird)
3. ‘Keep On’ (Eric Church, Ryan Tyndell)
4. ‘Like Jesus Does’ (Casey Beathard ,Monty Criswell)
5. ‘Hungover & Hard Up’ (Eric Church, Luke Laird)
6. ‘Homeboy’ (Eric Church, Casey Beathard)
7. ‘Country Music Jesus’ (Eric Church, Jeremy Spillman)
8. ‘Jack Daniels’ (Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Lynn Hutton)
9. ‘Springsteen’ (Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell)
10. ‘I’m Gettin’ Stoned’ (Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Casey Beathard, Jeremy Cradey)
11. ‘Over When It’s Over’ (Eric Church, Luke Laird)