With legions of predominantly young acts vying for sales, chart potential and all-around attention, it's easy for country music to get caught up in the moment
Then there is Eric Church. Over the past four years, he has almost subversively become one of country's biggest draws. But as the lasting popularity of his 2014 album, The Outsiders, attests, he is not in the game for immediate sales or a handful of quick hits. Church is out for making a lasting, crater-like mark on the industry.
"Everybody gets so focused on first-week numbers," says Church, who returns to Rupp Arena on Thursday night. "Ours were great and all that. But I've always said I'm more concerned about week 100 than I am about week one or week four. That's why you make albums. You make them for longevity. You make them to stay around and continue to roll, and I'm proud that this one has continued to do so."
The roll into The Outsiders began with 2011's Chief, an album whose chart-topping success (bolstered by the No. 1 singles Drink in My Hand and Springsteen) surprised everyone, including Church.
"Chief freaked me out because it was a big commercial success that nobody really saw," Church says. "We had really minimal success with Sinners Like Me (Church's 2006 debut album) and a little bit more with Carolina (the 2009 follow-up). But we were still a large club to a small theater act. That's what we were. Then Chief came out and went double platinum. None of us were ready for that, myself included.
"So when it was time to make The Outsiders, I just knew that it couldn't be Chief Part II. It had to be schizophrenic and weird. It had to be a departure in every way. I don't know where we go next. I'm not in that process yet. Once we get through this tour (which concludes later this month), I'll start thinking about that. I think we can go anywhere now, because The Outsiders was so all over the place. There are really no barriers here. There is nowhere we can't go, because it is such a weird and wild album."
A mix of dark, internalized narratives (the No. 1 hit Give Me Back My Hometown), radio-ready country kiss-offs (Cold One) and frenzied, almost metal-esque rock 'n' roll (the album's title tune), The Outsiders is intentionally scattered in its musical mindset.
"The Outsiders was always an outlier album for us," Church says. "If you're a Beatles fan, it's somewhat like what the White Album was. For the Beatles, it was just fun to be kind of out there. It's the way this one was conceived, too.
Church's outsider status also has been distinguished by the company he keeps onstage. Since his current tour began last fall, he has selected a parade of under-the-radar country performers and, in several instances, decidedly non-country artists as opening acts. The list includes new-generation Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers, Kentucky country celebs Dwight Yoakam and Chris Stapleton (See story, this section), Americana troupe The Lone Bellow (which performs on the Thursday bill) and the Pennsylvania guitar rock troupe Halestorm.
"Here's an example of our thinking," Church says. "Early in our career, Bob Seger took us out for 15 or 20 dates (which included a Rupp Arena stop). We were brand-new. Nobody knew who we were, and frankly, Bob Seger didn't need any help selling tickets. So we did him no good. But he took us on tour because he liked the music.
"Now, we're at a point where we can do the tickets we want to do. I just thought it was cooler than who everybody else takes on tour. Everybody just repackages tours. That's what happens in country music. That's what happens in all kinds of music. They just take the same four or five people, whoever had a hit this year, whoever's hot, and sticks them on the bill.
"There is just so much music out there I love that doesn't have the outlet. You know what? We didn't used to have the outlet, either. We used to play the bars and clubs and couldn't get on a tour. Nobody would take us out. I remember thinking then, 'If I ever get the opportunity, I'm going to make sure we take people out that we love, that have a chance to grow. Going forward, this is something we're going to continue to do."