Even at this tender juncture in his career, Eric Church has no plans to follow country music conventions. The singer and songwriter’s sophomore album, “Carolina,” is due out March 24, a whopping three years after his lauded debut, “Sinners Like Me.” What’s more, it does not include “His Kind of Money (My Kind of Love),” the song he put last fall as the new album’s first single, but that he subsequently decided “just didn’t fit” in the final sequence.
Is this any way to run a career — especially when sophomore is all too often followed by “slump” in the music biz vernacular?
“I guess I kind of have my own way of doing things,” Church, 31, says with a laugh. “I’m not gonna make a lot of records, and it’s going to take three, four years every time.
“To make the quality (of) records I want to make, it takes time to get ‘em right. All I promise is by the time they get there, I’ll have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s and they’ll be the best they can be.”
Church developed that ethos growing up in Granite Falls, N.C., with a mother he says was “a fantastic singer” and a father who was a big Motown and R&B fan. A high school athlete, he started playing in bands as a teenager and embraced rock, but Church ultimately decided that, for him, as a singer and songwriter, “the country thing was a pretty big playground,” and he pursued that direction.
He studied marketing at Appalachian State University, making good on a promise to his father — who in turn financed Church’s first six months in Nashville after he graduated in December 2000. “I couldn’t get there quick enough,” Church recalls. “And I didn’t have a plan when I got here.”
He worked a night shift filling orders for the Home Shopping Network and spent his days in songwriting sessions and “knocking on doors” for gigs.
Even though he co-wrote Terri Clark’s 2004 single “The World Needs a Drink,” there were, Church acknowledges, “a lot of dark days, a lot of times I had the suitcase packed to go (home). But I never could make myself zip it up and carry it out the door. I hung in there.”
It paid off when he signed a deal with Capitol Nashville and released “Sinners Like Me” in 2006. The album hit the Top 10 in the Billboard Country charts (and No. 29 on the Billboard 200), and its first three singles, “How ‘Bout You,” “Two Pink Lines” and “Guys Like Me” were all Top 20 country hits.
Church hit the road hard, too, all the while plotting what would become “Carolina.”
“We were very fortunate with ‘Sinners Like Me,’ ” Church notes, “so coming up to this one, I definitely felt the pressure. The only way I knew how to handle that was to say ‘We can’t go back and make “Sinners Like Me” again.’ We can’t make the same record. We’ve got to find a way to grow this thing, move this ball a little bit and at the same time not alienate the fan base I had with the first album.”
But his first album’s success also buoyed Church during sessions for “Carolina.”
“When I made ‘Sinners Like Me,’ ” he explains, “I’d never shaken the hand of a fan. I didn’t know who they were. After three, four years of touring, I know those people. I’ve seen them at shows and met ‘em.
“So it’s important when I made (‘Carolina’) to not turn my back on that, but at the same time show them something, peel back layers of things we hadn’t done before and still give ‘em what they liked the first time around.”
With label chief Jay Joyce producing, Church recorded “Carolina” in four sessions, recording four songs at each and choosing a dozen to include on the final product.
“I liked doing it that way,” Church says. “It gave me a better indication of what I needed to be writing, what I wanted to say. It gave me more clarity than going in for three weeks and trying to do the whole thing at once.”
That “clarity” is also what pushed “His Kind of Money” off the record, despite its release as a single last fall.
“I had another song called ‘Young & Wild’ that had the same kind of feel, and I liked it better,” Church explains. “I didn’t want two songs that were that close together, and I couldn’t make it work to keep it on the album.” Instead “His Kind of Money” will be included as bonus material on an exclusive Best Buy edition of “Carolina.”
Church, who got married last year, is planning to tour heavily in support of “Carolina.” He’s not averse to opening — and even played one show supporting Bob Seger in Cincinnati in 2007 — but he’s most looking forward to his current run of headlining dates.
“The biggest success we’ve had has been when we went out and did it ourselves,” Church says. “The first time we played Chicago we had 200 people there, then 600 the next time, and the last time it was 1,400, so we’re really building it and bringing people back.
“I’d much rather do it that way than having a 20-minute spot on a big tour, playing at 7 o’clock to probably 4,000 out of the 25,000 people coming. You play and nobody cares. I want people to come and care.”
Eric Church and Jonathan Singleton & the Grove perform Saturday (March 14) at Clutch Cargo’s, 65 E. Huron St., Pontiac. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call (248) 333-2362 or visit www.clutchcargos.com.
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