Happy 45th birthday to Eric Church! The singer was born on this day (May 3) in 1977, in Granite Falls, N.C.
Church developed an affinity for music early on, purchasing his first guitar and beginning to write songs when he was only 13 years old. By the time he was a senior in high school, Church was performing in bars all around North Carolina, but he didn’t immediately set his sights on a music career. Instead, Church graduated from Appalachian State University with a degree in business before relocating to Nashville in 2001. He intended to become a songwriter.
“I never really came to town to be an artist,” Church tells Billboard. “I didn’t know how to do it. But there were so many people in town that kept saying, ‘We love this or that song, but it sounds like it’s his.’ When that started coming back time and time again, we started thinking, ‘Maybe we’re going about this wrong.’ That’s when we started at least entertaining that I should be an artist.”
Church signed with Capitol Records, and rock producer Jay Joyce produced his debut album, Sinners Like Me, which was released in 2006. The record produced three Top 20 hits, including “Two Pink Lines” and “Guys Like Me,” but 2006 is memorable for Church another reason: He embarked on his first major tour, serving as the opening act on Rascal Flatts‘ Me & My Gang trek … and then was fired for taking up too much time during his set.
“It just honestly wasn’t a great fit,” Church explains. “I’m not a guy that follows rules great, and when some rules were put out there, I broke them. I probably played too long. I played louder than I was supposed to. I went to places on the stage I wasn’t supposed to go.”
Being kicked off the tour didn’t hurt Church’s career in the long run, though it seemed as though it may have at the time. However, an invitation from Bob Seger to open his shows “in a lot of ways, saved my career … [and] saved my faith in music,” Church says.
Church’s sophomore record, Carolina, which was released in 2009, includes the Top 10 singles “Love Your Love the Most” and “Hell on the Heart.” But it wasn’t until 2011’s Chief that Church saw his first No. 1 hit, with “Drink in My Hand,” followed by “Springsteen,” which also landed at the top of the charts.
“My grandfather was chief of police for 35 years, and when I was growing up, everyone called him Chief,” Church explains of the album’s moniker. “The guys started calling me that totally as a joke, when I started wearing a hat and sunglasses after I got my contacts. They didn’t know about my grandfather at all. It was two different things and happened very organically and very naturally.”
Chief also earned Church both an ACM and a CMA for Album of the Year.
“They mean a lot more for the people that have believed in me,” Church explains of such awards. “I don’t get caught up in winning or losing awards. But I want them for the people who believed. I want them for the fans, I want them for those people in radio, for those people in the industry who have always believed in us. That’s what I want to win an award for, so they can stand up and say, ‘I was right.’”
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Church followed Chief with 2014’s The Outsiders, which spawned the platinum-selling No. 1 hit “Give Me Back My Hometown” and was one of only two country albums to earn platinum status that year.
“It was very, very important that [The Outsiders] was something that our fans and everybody else knew immediately, this is very different, this is very much not [me] just continuing down the same path,” Church says. “And it’s somewhat risky in a way. I remember thinking when we finished the album and I listened back to it, I was concerned we had nothing commercial, coming off the biggest commercial success. I didn’t know what that would mean.”
And while The Outsiders was ambitious, Church’s next project was even more so: On Nov. 4, 2015, Church dropped a new album, Mr. Misunderstood, completely by surprise. The singer tells Vulture that he wrote the album in 20 days, recorded it in 10 … and only let his label in on the news when he absolutely needed to.
“The way the music industry works is all based on hype … All these people are telling the fans to get the record, which is backwards to me. You’re trying to get it in the hands of the fans, but you give it to everybody else before you go to the fans. I like flipping that,” Church notes. “I saw a guy in Kentucky who had gotten the vinyl — he ended up getting interviewed about it. Just some guy, right? He’s on the morning show and they’re asking him about the album … I thought that it was great that this fan ends up being the guy that’s talking about the music.”
Church continued to push himself with his most recent project, April’s Heart & Soul. He, producer Joyce, his band and several other songwriters and musicians, crafted the three-disc set in early 2020, during a retreat to rural North Carolina.
During their time away from Nashville, Church and company’s goal was to write and record one song per day. Some days, they didn’t have a complete song, “but I liked [what we had of] the song and I decided, just start it — we’ll figure it out as we go,” the singer explains.
“It really put creativity in the driver’s seat,” Church adds, “and it was exciting to me.”
Music aside, Church’s proudest accomplishments have nothing to do with his professional career. Married to his wife Katherine since 2008, he’s also the proud father to sons Boone McCoy, born in 2011, and Tennessee Hawkins, born in 2015.
“When you have a child, everything changes,” Church tells Rolling Stone. “I’ve changed a lot. I suppress a lot of maybe the way I used to be. Is that dark side still probably there? Yeah. I just don’t let it come out very much. But if you mess with my kid, if you mess with my family, well, I can bring it out.”
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