When Eric Church first performed at Jamboree in the Hills in 2006, he was just preparing to release his first album, "Sinners Like Me." He recalled that first trip to Belmont County in a recent phone interview, "I think we were the first act in the morning," said Church as they opened Sunday's concert that year. "There were not very many people in the crowd, but when we started playing they came out of their campers and they seemed to really be into what we were doing."
His debut album contained his first hit single, "How 'Bout You" and two more chart placers, "Two Pink Lines" and "Guys Like Me."
Eric released his sophomore album, "Carolina" in 2009 and including his first two Top 10 singles "Love Your Love the Most" and "Smoke a Little Smoke," Winning an Academy of Country Music Award for "Top New Solo Vocalist," this year for that single.
Church is gearing up to release his third album "Chief," and his hard-charging live show is back at Jambo. This time he will has earned an evening slot on Saturday, taking the stage right before Toby Keith. Eric is currently wrapping up a tour with Jason Aldean and will be on tour with Keith this summer and into the fall.
"Live performances are how we got here," said Church. "We were carried here on the backs of our fans. They spend their money to come and see us on stage and called the Country stations to get us airtime. They buy our albums, and these concerts are a chance for us to pay it back."
"This new album pays homage to that," he said. "You only get a small window of time to make records in this business when people will really listen and care."
Church explained that he writes each song on the album as an integral part of the whole project, "I really love vinyl records as a recording medium, you just put the needle down on the side of an album and let it play through."
"The album unfolded like a story, I loved that concept," Church said that the new system of downloads and MP3 players have detracted from that opportunity for an artist to paint a portrait with the music on their album.
"Now you really don't have to listen to the album in order, you can download one song or just click a button," the artist added. "I love that vinyl -concept, I love all that space."
Eric Church is on a mission. You might expect someone coming off of their first two Top Ten country singles and an ACM Award for "Top New Solo Vocalist" to lock down the formula and go for more of the same, but with third album, CHIEF, Church is trying something bolder and using the opportunity provided by his success to push his music even further.
"You have a certain responsibility to the fans who have been buying your music, you do not want to alienate them by changing the formula completely, Church explained.
"It's up to us to move the needle," Church said that he knew he wanted to push the envelope, but was not sure of a direction for the new album. "We took about a month off and went to a cabin up in North Carolina," he said. "We've always kind of blazed our own trail when it comes to song writing and I was trying to figure out where we needed to go."
"Your song writers like Waylon and Cash, they all took the format and said 'We're going over here,' and they all changed the direction of Country music a little bit." Church confessed. "We are edgy when it comes to writing and honestly, I wasn't sure of what direction we were going to take for the new album."
"When I got up there to the cabin, I didn't go anywhere for a month. Writers came out and we just wrote all day and all night," said Church. "That really stoked the creative flame for me. Then, I spent the next six months on tour and kept on writing whenever I could."
When it came time to record the album, Church had a sound in mind that felt different from his first two releases. "This record, more than anything else I've done, is breathing and alive," he says. "There's a wildness to it. It's untamed and not very harnessed."
This energy started with the singer's own role in the sessions. Much of Chief was cut live in the studio. Church played guitar with the band (and for the first time on record, electric guitar on "Like Jesus Does") and some of the final versions even use the original tracking vocal.
The first release from the album, the single, "Homeboy," is currently climbing the radio airplay charts currently sitting at 16 on the Billboard County Charts.
Church's new music video for "Homeboy," which was filmed at Nashville's Tennessee State Prison, premiered on Country Music television in early May.
"It is a provocative appeal from one brother to another to get back on track and make peace with his family," Church said of the song does not fit the traditional mold for a country sound. The strumming banjo is mixed with grunge guitar riffs combined on occasion with pizzicato strings and harp and even a hand clap loop. "Boredom is the one thing that can kill a career and creativity."
"There's just a comfort level with Jay," Church recorded the album in Nashville with Jay Joyce, who also produced his previous two releases. "We've both learned to sit back and let each other try different paths and get farther out there."
"We never said we can't do that when we were recording," he said. "I think this album is the most aggressive I've made because of that."
When asked to name his favorite track, the artist stated that it was "Springsteen," a song that he wrote thinking of his wife, music publisher Katherine Blasingame. "It has special meaning to me and I hope that reflects when you listen to it."
The release date is July 26, so the show at Jamboree in the Hills will be a preview of the album for his fans, and Church is looking forward to debuting some of the new material on stage here.
"We love coming to that area of the country," said Church. "I have always found my kind of people there, it is a special connection for us."
"They get us, and they got us from the beginning," he said of the local fans.
The new stuff is not something people are used to," he continues, "and there can be a price to pay for that. I've had people say 'that's strange,' 'it's odd'-things that some people might run from but, I think it's fantastic."
"This record, more than anything else I've done, is breathing and alive," he says. "There's a wildness to it. It's untamed and not very harnessed."
Some of the titles like "Drink in My Hand" or "Hungover and Hard Up," instantly show that he's still comfortable with the expectations of his rowdy live audience.
"You've got to know what's going to fire them up," he says, "but, you also need to give them a twist, something they can't just go back and get from the other two records."
"We still come on stage with that music that is going to punch you right in the mouth," Church assured fans that the concert experience has not changed. "When I put on the sunglasses and the hat, that's how people know it's show time."
Eric Church will appear at Jamboree in the Hills on Saturday, July 16, with JT Hodges, Bush Hawg, Sarah Darling, Due West, Craig Campbell and Toby Keith. For tickets or more information visit the website at: www.jamboreeinthehills.com.