Published on May 2nd, 2014 | by Andy Sedlak
‘Chief’ – Eric Church 
Summary: 'Chief' takes us to where mainstream C&W, alternative country and Hank Jr. intersect. It’s bold. It’s brave. It’s country music with hooves.
Length: 39:39 | Release: July 26, 2011
Producer: Jay Joyce | Label: EMI Nashville
Top 40 U.S. Singles: 2 | Peak Position on Billboard Album Chart: 1
In Central Ohio, I grew up with plenty of farm kids that liked Metallica. In fact, most of them preferred Metallica to Brad Paisley. I think there’s something about songs with the ability to pulverize – that maybe it comes down to admiring music as loud and bold as the machinery that surrounds you every day.
When Eric Church released Chief in July 2011, he was transformed from Curious Newcomer into Marketable Rebel. His previous release, 2009’s Carolina, sold 715,000 copies in the United States (Billboard numbers). Chief has sold 1.7 million. The record made him a star whose shadow and musical influence extends past the houses, farms and drive-thrus he reliably wrote about.
Chief, as a record, asks for a proverbial arm wrestle. It pushes a genre known for arrangements and production styles that know their place. Church’s songs expand, and not in a strings-and-gospel-choir sort of way.
Yes, there are Jamey Johnsons forever lurking in Nashville’s shadows. Those shadows – where you’ll also find Rodney Crowell, the Drive-By Truckers, Charlie Robison and the Mavericks –always thrilled me more than whatever Nashville put on its main stage. But a new crop of free-thinkers have made the most of a unique opening that’s resulted in sustained commercial success.
Kacey Musgraves is spearheading the charge next to Church. While that unmistakable Nashville sheen still coats their material, their songs aren’t compartmentalized. Multiple pistons are firing at once. Sort of like a John Deere 7R Series tractor. Or life itself.
Revisionists give themselves away. And Church’s devils are in his details. He carefully tucks reasoning behind bravado shoved out front.
All you gotta do is put a drink in my hand.
I gotta 40-hour week worth of trouble to drown.
Elsewhere on the album he sings:
Ain’t nothing wrong with a blue-collar 40
Little house, little kids, little small town story
Both are true. Both are feasible. Hopes and struggles in small towns are just as complex and as entangled as on the guarded side streets of Brooklyn or soaked lawns of Miami.
The album opens with the aptly named, “Creepin’.” What’s creeping? Insecurities. Addiction. Memories.
Oh, and amplitude.
You shot outta here like a bullet from a gun
A flip of a switch, a thief on the run
And since the day you left me, baby
I can feel the lonely
I can hear the crazy
…just a creepin’
Listen to the way Church emphasizes the words “feel” and “hear.” His band splits well-crafted tension in half, turning subtle suspense into another monster entirely. The song represents either a full-tilt breakdown or absolute triumph. It depends on the day.
Church plays “Creepin'”, the fourth single from Chief, live at the Opry.
The aforementioned hit, “Drink in my Hand” comes next, followed by the cocky bullrider in “Keep On.” We’ve all seen this guy plotting at the end of the bar. Sometimes he’s with your crew. Sometimes he’s not.
Yeah I can tell by the way I took your hand
And then asked you to dance
He went all John Wayne in front of his friends
And said, “I don’t think so, man”
Yeah all bowed up like a loud mouth pup
Never been in a junkyard fight
But if you’re gonna bark at the big dog, boy
Then you’re gonna get to feel the bite
Like “Keep On,” the album is full of men who are probably old enough to know better but may be too old to change. “Homeboy,” about a poser you might have shared a room with growing up, is a stunner. Brotherly love can be complicated, and life has a way of muddying once-clear waters.
You were too bad for a little square town
with your hip-hop hat and your pants on the ground
Heard you cussed out mamma, pushed daddy around
You tore off in his car
Here you are runnin’ these dirty old streets
Tattoo on your neck, fake gold on your teeth
Got the hood here snow, but you can’t fool me, we both know who you are
Don’t be tempted to think Church is taking swings at hip hop culture. To accuse Church of racist leanings – it’s hard to even type that – is to accuse Martin Scorsese of being anti-Semitic. These are characters, put forth by artists interested in the examination of various aspects of the American identity. Church’s characters may be measuring the passage of time by the fade in their tattoos, but they’re measuring it just the same.
Homeboy, you’re gonna wish one day you were sittin’ on the gate of a truck by the lake
With your high school flame on one side, ice cold beer on the other
Ain’t no shame in a blue collar forty, little house little kids little small town story
If you don’t ever do anything else for me, just do this for me brother
Come on home, boy
The comma placement at the end of the chorus is crucial, of course.
Rare is a true artist’s album in that the standout tracks are also some of its biggest singles. “Springsteen” isn’t so much about the musician, but rather the hyper-sensitive relationship between songs and reminiscences. Still, Church was 34 at the time of Chief’s release, making him the perfect age for the Bruceapalooza in the mid-80s.
Again, listen to the way the song expands. The song rides along on a trucker’s groove, but more is less when vibraphone notes dot Church’s memories after each chorus. As Springsteen-esque as the “Ohs” are that follow, Church takes ownership of them. Before we know it, we’re all looking back.
If I bumped into you by happenstance
You probably wouldn’t even know who I am
But if I whispered your name, I bet there’d still be a spark
The video for Church’s U.S. Top 40 hit “Springsteen”.
Redeeming is the album with intriguing stepping stone tracks. While whiskey-soaked losers populate most of Church’s non-single tracks, there’s new air in those clichéd C&W lungs. We’re left thinking maybe there’s more to these stories than we give the characters credit for.
There’s “Jack Daniels:”
Always thought this heart was made of steel and bulletproof,
But the memory of her taillights fading breaks it right in two,
Guess every superman has got his kryptonite
Jack Daniels kicked my ass again last night
And “I’m Gettin’ Stoned:”
Here’s to happy ever after
And here’s to balls and chains
And here’s to all us haters
Of old lovers’ new last names
And here’s to holdin’ up and gettin’ right where I belong
She got a rock
I’m gettin’ stoned
The album ends with one of my favorite couplets about a relationship that had a shot… but ultimately failed:
We had it in the air
We just couldn’t land it
The record, however, sticks the landing. The only time Church strays from his strengths is when he draws parallels to the Messiah. I don’t revisit “Like Jesus Does” and “Country Music Jesus” as much, but they’re critical within the context of the album. Going to opposite extremes, the songs balance out Church’s approach and you can’t have one side without the other. Plus, the former is the album’s only ode to present-day love. Without it, we may be tempted to assume Church does nothing but look back.
A CBS Sunday Morning profile on Church.
How do I feel about the album? It’s an honest work, which is all we can ask for. It’s singular in its execution. Whoever stood next to Church during the creation of this record was on the same page as him. The reverse is also true, of course.
Major props are in order to producer Jay Joyce. A native Clevelander, Joyce once played in a rock band called In Pursuit. He’s worked as a session man and has played guitar for John Hiatt and Iggy Pop. As a producer, he’s worked with the Wallflowers and Emmylou Harris.
Church and Joyce gave me a record that feels broken in… like my old varsity jacket.
My cup runneth over. It’s the total package. And I simply can’t ask for anything more.
Fresh off of Chief’s success, Church played the 2012 Orion Music + More festival in Atlantic City. The weekend event was founded and hosted by the members of Metallica. He was introduced by Metallica frontman James Hetfield and the Mighty Met took the stage after his set. But Church gave the audience country music with hooves. Yes, there was smoke. Yes, there was pyro. But more than anything, he rode the popularity of Chief’s lyrically crystal clear songs steeped in domestic melodrama, heartbreak and pushing-it debauchery. And he was playing loud.
Just like they did on the farm.