Eric Church doesn't follow a script.
Whether it's life or making music, Church survives on gut instinct.
That's why when it came time to start thinking about making a new album, he disappeared. For a month, he got far away from the world of cell phones and televisions and everyday distractions, to a cabin in the middle of the North Carolina wilderness, to his hideaway at 4,600 feet above sea level with an inspirational view of the mountains.
"I brought up songwriters, people I trusted. Honestly, I didn't care if we wrote a song at all. I wanted to get them out of their element. I wanted to get me out of my element," Church said. "I needed to get the creative juices flowing."
And he did. He wrote 35 to 40 songs, including "Homeboy," the fastest-rising single of his career and a favorite in his show, which he'll bring to Centennial Terrace Friday night.
Each morning, he and a writer walked out on the cabin's large deck, coffee in hand, stared at the mountains, and kicked around song ideas before jumping on 4-wheelers and exploring the trails on his 1,500 acres of land. The purpose was to free his mind from distractions and let ideas rattle around in his head throughout the day.
"There was a time I wrote a song at noon, and there was a time I wrote one at 3 in the morning," Church said. "I told the writers there wasn't anything off-limits, we're sleeping in the same house, you can wake me up at 4 a.m. if it's good enough, but it better be good enough."
His mountain escape produced most of the songs on "Chief," his next album, which will be released July 26. "Homeboy" is the first song off that album. "Chief" follows on the heels of "Carolina," an album that produced the hits "Love Your Love the Most," "Hell on the Heart," and "Smoke a Little Smoke." The project also led to him being named the Academy of Country Music's New Solo Vocalist of the Year in April.
His career never has been brighter. He doesn't feel pressure to improve upon "Carolina" with "Chief." Rather he views this record as a chance to take his career to the next level. Besides "Homeboy," he is keeping the rest of the album off his set lists so his fans are surprised on the release date. But after an early listen, it's obvious this could be Church's best record to date, filled with potential singles from start to finish.
"I knew the timing was right when I made this record. I had to make my 'Back in Black.' "
The reference to the AC/DC album won't surprise his fans. They are familiar with the heavily rock-influenced show Church puts on.
"I grew up in the '80s. There was no way to get away from AC/DC, Metallica," he said. "I went to see AC/DC, and it was a life-changing experience for me. I'd been to a lot of shows, but energy wise, I'd never seen anything like this. That's when I decided I was going to play shows where people participated."
He laughs at the memory of the early days of his career, playing the county fairs, where the fair board would sit older ticket holders in the first couple rows. He would send out his guitar player, a former member of a heavy metal band, to riff for 10 to 15 minutes. The seniors would scatter, and he would bring up his younger, rowdier fans to the front.
"It's starting to get to the point now where people realize the type of show we put on and are ready for it," he says, before adding with a chuckle. "For a while, we scared the hell out of people."
Not much has changed from those early days. Yes, he now has an increasingly larger collection of hits, but he's still the same guy in the ballcap and dark sunglasses who comes ready to rock every night.
"I like music where you hit people in the mouth. We make that a conscious effort. We come out and throw an uppercut first and see what happens."
Eric Church will be in concert Friday at Centennial Terrace. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the show begins at 8. Tickets are $27 in advance and $31 Friday. Tickets are available at the Stranahan box office, all TicketMaster outlets, by phone at 800-745-3000, or online at ticketmaster.com. They are only available at Centennial Terrace Friday.
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Eric Church retreated to the woods and returned with new album.