As he outlines the specifics of his first headlining tour, rock-savvy country singer Eric Church cites an inspiration that seems unexpected: Iron Maiden.
I assure him that in all of my years of writing, he stands as the first country artist to reference the veteran metal band in an interview.
"I'll probably be the last, too," said the North Carolina-bred singer, who performs Friday night at Rupp Arena.
The Iron Maiden parallel isn't what you might expect. Admittedly, Church's boozy, bluesy songs are delivered at a high, electric volume that sometimes makes him indistinguishable from a conventional arena-rock act. But the singer's reference is technical. Disdaining the usual practice of employing video screens at arena shows, Church said, he is borrowing a trick that Iron Maiden used once on tour that involved a variety of backdrops to illustrate specific songs and show segments.
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"Even though we know some people wish we would, we don't use video screens. I just don't want people to have to go to a show and, in effect, watch TV from the audience the whole night. If you do that, you might as well be at home watching the show on CMT.
"I remember when I used to go to concerts, regardless of where I was sitting, I loved seeing the whole stage," said Church, 34. "I loved the lights. I loved seeing the movement of the band and feeling the entire presentation. So what we borrowed from Iron Maiden was this whole thing with the backdrops. They run on this sort of old-school pulley system, but it's really neat. It will be interesting to see what fans at Rupp think."
Church talks about Rupp as if he knows it — and he does. He played there twice before as an opening act. His most recent visit was last year for a sold-out show by headliner Jason Aldean. But the first goes back to 2007, when he played on a bill with Bob Seger. Although decidedly not a country artist, the veteran Detroit rocker has many country fans. Church is one of them.
"To this day, opening for Seger was the coolest thing I've done in my career. Those 25 or 30 shows I did with him, ... I remember every one of them. That was pretty early in my career."
Indeed so. Reception to Church's debut album, 2006's Sinners Like Me, was strong enough to land him a support slot on a series of arena shows by country-pop stars Rascal Flatts. But when his opening sets ran too long, he was dismissed from the tour. Then came Seger.
"We had just gotten fired from the Flatts tour, so we went from this big production with video screens and the glitz and all of this 'look at me, look at me' to Bob just walking out onstage. He had lights and sound and then didn't stop for two hours. I mean, some of his hits are older than I am. But to his audience, these are all brand-new No. 1 singles. That really taught me a lot about the power of making great music that lasts."
Sinners Like Me and the 2009 follow-up, Carolina, established Church as a worthy successor to the school of countrified Southern rock. But in formulating his musical voice, styles and influences came from just about anywhere.
"I loved The Band. I loved Little Feat. I loved the slinkiness of their records. But I didn't discover them until I was in college (Church graduated from Appalachian State University), when you're exposed to all kinds of eclectic stuff. Growing up, I listened to country. But you couldn't ride around town without hearing AC/DC, Metallica, Seger, Tom Petty or (Bruce) Springsteen. When I got to college, I discovered singer-songwriters. For me, it was Kris Kristofferson. The way a lot of people feel about Dylan is how I feel about Kristofferson.
"Then when I started playing in a band five nights a week, things really opened up. I got into all the bluegrass stuff — Doc Watson, Tony Rice. Then came the jam bands — Phish and Widespread Panic. So I hope we can keep making records that are representative of having a lot of different influences."
The catalyst for Church's newest success — a popularity that has taken him from opening act to arena headliner — is Chief, his third and newest album. The record fine-tunes assorted '70s-style rock and country flavors in both its music (like the meshing of Tom Petty and Johnny Paycheck on Drink in My Hand, which last winter became Church's first No. 1 hit) and its themes (as in Springsteen, a direct ode to one specific inspiration).
"I hate the process of making a record," Church said. "I love the result, but making a record just consumes my life. I go completely nuts. It's almost paralyzing. When a record is done, there is just this huge release. So when Chief was done, I stuck it in the truck and listened to it from start to finish. It felt alive. It had a heartbeat.
"I hope people respect the fact that I'm nowhere near ready to make a new record. That is going to be a ways down the line. I pretty much emptied the tank on this one."