About the last thing anyone expected out of Eric Church last November was a new album.
“Including me,” said the famed country artist, who will headline the first evening of the revamped Red, White & Boom festival Friday night at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
Last year was supposedly being devoted to extended downtime for Church, whose visibility among new-generation country, rock and Americana audiences has grown substantially over the past decade. When touring was completed for his 2014 album, “The Outsiders,” Church was ready to seriously downshift. But then a song came to him. Then another. That led to an outpouring of compositions that quickly sent him back into the recording studio. Within a month, Church’s fifth studio album, “Mr. Misunderstood,” was written. With another, it was cut and completed.
“I wish I could replicate what happened,” he said. “During that period, the songs were coming every day. I mean, the whole album landed in just 10 days or 12 days, so there was no time to really sit back and analyze it. Whatever happened when that stuff came through, the spigot was shut off as fast as it was turned on.
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Every day, when I got up, I grabbed the guitar to see what it said.
“I don’t usually write that way. Normally, when I go in to write an album, I mine for the record. I may write 100 songs to try to find where the album is going and what it’s about. This time, it just landed. So I don’t know, frankly, if I can talk as intelligently as you probably want me to about what my thinking was at the time. I was just going where I felt led to go. Every day, when I got up, I grabbed the guitar to see what it said.”
With the most unplanned recording project of his career done, Church wasn’t about to waste time letting the album gather dust on a shelf so his record label could determine the best time to release and promote it. So he sent “Mr. Misunderstood” directly to his fans — specifically, his fan club, cheekily named the Church Choir. There, he issued the record through email and vinyl-CD mailings. In its first week of retail release, the album shot to No. 3 on the all-genre Billboard 200 charts.
“I just happen to believe, and I’ve said this many times, it’s a crime against the inspiration and the creativity to put a record on a shelf and wait five or six months because you’re supposed to have a single. We decided to just put it out and let the fans power it as opposed to me going around doing interviews and making sure the labels get it and make sure radio gets it. Screw all that. We let the fans be the mouthpiece. They were on the ground floor and on the inside of this thing.”
Musically and thematically, “Mr. Misunderstood” is Church’s most spacious work, with leanings to country, arena rock, Southern soul and more. There is even a mix of all that in “Chattanooga Lucy” and the single “Record Year.” Despite the briskness of the recording sessions, there was time to enlist an A team of female vocalists for support that included Americana favorite Rhiannon Giddens, soul and blues empress Susan Tedeschi, country vet Joanna Cotten and even a Kentucky ambassador, Louisville singer Andrea Davidson.
I believe this is the bridge between what we did early in our career and what we’re going to do from now on.
“The one thing I get from this album, and we showed glimpses of it on ‘The Outsiders,’ is just maturity. I believe this is the bridge between what we did early in our career and what we’re going to do from now on. It’s one that will connect the past with the future. I think it’s that one album that just fits in there. It has some elements that have worked musically. Then it’s got a whole new sound, a simpler sound. It’s a lot more sparse than the stuff we’ve done, where ‘The Outsiders’ was maybe more bombastic. It was meant to be. This one is way simpler, probably because of the way it arrived. It arrived as something very simple and we tried to record it that way.”
To crown the rapid-fire creation of “Mr. Misunderstood” was the revelation that the Church Choir has welcomed a new, high-profile member: Michael Phelps, the champion swimmer, who included Church’s music in his play list of pre-competition listening at the Olympic Games in Rio.
“That was a total kick, man,” Church said. “That was so great. It’s something you don’t see coming at all. When word on that came out, it was such a crazy thing and an honor. It’s just about where people find inspiration. That’s the special thing about music.
“Hope it helped.”