When the Billboard 200 chart dated Aug. 13, 2011, was released, many industry insiders were stunned.
Eric Church, a country artist with a rocky history with radio, had debuted at No. 1, knocking Adele from the top spot by selling 145,000 copies of "Chief." What was so puzzling about his first-week sales was that at that point, Church may have been best known for his edgy songs and getting thrown off the Rascal Flatts tour because he was playing too long during his sets.
To put the feat in context, he was the first country artist since Bobbie Gentry in 1967 (the year the Billboard 200 started) to top the all-genre chart without having a career top-5 single. He not only didn't have any top 5s, he barely had a top 10. "Love Your Love the Most" and "Hell on the Heart" reached No. 10 for Church in 2009.
"I was blown away. Nobody expected that. It didn't make any sense to me," Church said by phone about the chart-topping album. "I was hoping for half what it did. It renewed my faith in music and our career path."
His faith had been shaken repeatedly by his battles to get his music on radio. His second single, "Two Pink Lines," dealt with teen pregnancy, "Smoke a Little Smoke" had clear references to marijuana smoking, and "Homeboy," the first single off of "Chief," was being tagged as racially divisive. His hard-rocking concerts earned him a loyal fan base, but it wasn't surprising that many radio programmers didn't fall into that group of loyalists. The subject matter of his songs often spooked programmers who had to keep an eye on advertising dollars.
Church was unrepentant, a character trait that endeared him to his hardcore fan base weary of what many considered the soft-pop road that country music was on. His popularity encompasses not only the outlaw segment of country but also the hard-rock, metal fans attracted by his honesty and the hard-driving grooves of his music. That cross-genre alliance spread the word, pushing him to the top of the chart.
"We continue to do what we were doing, not what everyone else was doing. You have guys writing songs that go up and down the charts -- No. 1, No. 1, No. 1 -- and no one cares. It sounds like the last No. 1 song. It's always been different for us," Church said. "We took a stance. We've had some stuff that's gotten us in trouble and has been defined as edgy and controversial … but that's what's made us different than the average artist. We sing about those social issues going on in real life."
Whatever the reason for the album's success, there is little debate that it changed Church's career and elevated him to superstar status. When he sold out Saturday night's show at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, it became the 25th sellout on his "Blood, Sweat & Beers Tour," which stops at the Huntington Center on Thursday night.
"Our career will be pre-'Chief' and post-'Chief.' It's the reason we're selling out arenas now. It's the reason we're selling the number of records we are," Church said. "A No. 1 on the Top 200 -- that resonates across the world. Once we did that, people who were holding out, or people who didn't like us, their hands were kind of forced. I understand if you're a program director you might want to steer away from our music, but they couldn't ignore it anymore."
The proof of that is evident with his recent releases. "Drink in My Hand," the single after "Homeboy," became Church's first No. 1 single. He followed that with his current single, "Springsteen," which has cracked the top 10 and is the fastest rising single of Church's career. In addition, "Chief" continues to sell briskly and has sold more than 750,000 copies.
Commercial success is the easiest way for an artist to sustain a career, but Church also sees it as an opportunity to make a historical difference.
"You look at artists from every generation -- Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones … Randy Travis and Garth Brooks, they come along and music was doing this, but they did something else," Church said. "I think as artists it's our responsibility to say, 'That's cool, but let's look at this over here and see if we can grow the format.' We shouldn't just be trying to run songs up and down the charts."
"Chief" took a mental and emotional toll on Church. A prolific songwriter, he shut creatively after the project was done. He wrote almost all the songs for the album during a retreat with songwriting pals at his cabin in the North Carolina mountains. They put together 35 to 40 songs, including "Homeboy" and "Springsteen" during the trip.
"I write in spells. Once I took off and started writing for that record, the faucet was wide open for six to eight months. When I came back from the cabin and was on the road, I was writing songs all the time. It opened me up creatively."
But his total immersion in making the well-rounded "Chief" came with a price. When an idea for a song popped in his head, he'd put his guitar down because he didn't want to think about a future record. Eventually, the faucet that was wide open clamped shut.
"I was starting to get worried. It'd been about a year since I put pen to paper. I was worried if I'd ever write again," he said.
But the creative juices are flowing again, and he's been writing for the last couple of months with an eye on putting out the sequel to "Chief" -- maybe in a year, maybe in five years. Whatever the next record looks like, it won't deviate much from his past efforts. There will likely be songs about drinking, fighting, and whatever social issues tug at his heart. Some of it probably won't be fit for radio. However, the one thing his growing commercial success has shown him is that his fans like the unfiltered Eric Church.
"I'm not a guy who cares about awards. I never will be. I'm not a guy who cares about how many No. 1s I have. I am a guy who cares about every record. I would love that if I make six records in my career, I would love that when people rank the top 20 records 50 years from now that I would have five or six of those. Every record is its own piece of art."
Eric Church, along with guests Brantley Gilbert and Blackberry Smoke, will be in concert at the Huntington Center on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $34.75 and are available at ticketmaster.com, by phone at 800-745-3000, or at the Huntington Center box office.
Contact Brian Dugger at: email@example.com or on Twitter @DuggerCountry.com.