Alt-country maverick Eric Church titled his latest album "The Outsiders" for good reason. The North Carolinian has felt excluded for years, going back to his 2006 cutting-edge debut, "Sinners Like Me," and subsequent tour opening for Rascal Flatts that went down in Music Row infamy. The headliners warned him to play 20-minute sets at moderate volume. But at each performance, he rocked louder and longer than the night before, until he finally got the ax at Madison Square Garden. Afterward, Church found himself virtually blacklisted from most country venues, so he began playing metal clubs and biker bars. "And that's where we found our audience," he says.
Country music got Hallmark-card sappy several years ago. Only recently is it getting back to its blue-collar roots. When we came out with "Sinners Like Me," we had a hard time. Instead of going to the top of the charts and selling a bunch of albums, we went the other way, and we got dangerously close to not being anywhere. I mean, "Two Pink Lines" was our second single -- a song about pregnancy. But we really paid our dues and kept chipping away at it, until we got to the "Chief" album [in 2011], where we really made something that I thought was pretty far left of center. And all of a sudden, it has No. 1 songs and wins awards and sells a couple million copies, and then it becomes the middle of the format.
But with "Cold One," "That's Damned Rock and Roll" and "Give Me Back My Hometown," "Outsiders" pushes the envelope even further. We went from what I thought was going to be the edge, to having the edge pulled to the middle, to this album, where I wanted to make sure that we were way past that edge. So I think the entire concept of this album was from the place of, "Let's make sure that this thing is out there, and that it's going to stay out there." Because I just like it out there -- you're not pigeonholed or boxed in because your entire career has been one type of song or a certain type of music.
Just like Springsteen -- whom you've written a song about -- all of his stylistic detours have made perfect aesthetic sense, right? Yes. 100 percent. "Nebraska" is a great example. It was a lot like when Dylan went electric, and the shock was what I loved about it. And it was artistic. So any decision we make? We just try and be artistic. Because essentially that's what we're all supposed to be doing -- making art and not worrying "is this going to commercially work?"
IF YOU GO
at BottleRock Napa Valley
Where: Napa Valley Expo, 575 Third St., Napa
When: 8:30 p.m. Sunday (Toshiba Stage)
Tickets: $149 to $599
Note: BottleRock runs noon to 10 p.m. Friday-Sunday; headliners include The Cure at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Outkast at 8 p.m. Saturday.