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The Last Word: Eric Church on Vinyl Escapism, Being Upstaged by Stallone

The country star talks growing up in Appalachia, loving Shel Silverstein and learning from his badass grandfather

Eric Church talks about his songwriting heroes and why an artist should never play it safe. Credit: Illustration by Mark Summer

Eric Church celebrated the chart-topping success of his single "Record Year" yesterday during one of Nashville's ubiquitous Number One parties. The song, written by Church and Jeff Hyde, and the introspective album on which it appears, Mr. Misunderstood, epitomizes Church's increasingly daring approach to country-music creativity. "I think the more success you have, the more dangerous you should play it," Church recently told Rolling Stone during an interview that touched on everything from the influence of his grandfather to why you should never buy a watch after Sylvester Stallone.

You're from North Carolina. What's the most North Carolinian thing about you?
Coming from the mountains, you can get lost in that culture. Some of it's weird and funky. There's a roots nature to Appalachia – the origins of folk and bluegrass. I know guys there who are some of the best players I've ever heard, but are playing on their porch tonight, because they've never chased success. There's simplicity to how they live and what they care about. If you're in Nashville, doing what I do for a living, you don't run into a ton of genuineness.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. It's a great life lesson about sacrifice. As a kid, I read it damn near every night. I read it to my son Boone last year. Shel Silverstein was kooky and nuts, but brilliant nuts, truly a savant. And I love his poems, like "The Devil and Billy Markham" – stuff that gets way out there.

What's a typical day at home in Nashville for you?
I'm not an early riser; I'm a crack-of-noon guy. But I'll generally try to get outside at some point. I have some land outside of town. I'll chop wood, which is a great way to clear your head. It's been too hot lately, but I'll go back when the snakes lay down. Other than that, I hang out with my kids.

What's your favorite room at home?
My office. It's got a lot of mementos from my career. I have a record player, and after the kids are in bed, I put on headphones and just sit there, usually with a Jack Daniel's, and play vinyl. That's my escapism, more so than TV.

What music moves you the most?
Right now, I'm into what I'd call high-art singer-songwriters: Leonard Cohen, Nick Lowe, John Prine. They don't write songs thinking, "I have this much time" or "I need this many songs." Leonard wrote 80-some verses to "Hallelujah." That blows my mind. That wouldn't happen in my world, because there are rules and you don't have the kind of freedom to let a song morph so much over time.

What advice do you wish you could give to your younger self?
Enjoy the journey. Looking back on my career, some of the hardest times – eight people at a show, 12 people on a bus – were some of the most fun. But I don't know that I enjoyed it in the moment. I probably bitched more back then. I was too young and stupid.

What's the best advice you've ever gotten?
My mom told me, "If they don't know you personally, don't take it personally." It's hard doing what I do for a living, because people write things and say things and you can't please everybody. 

You've written about your grandfather in a lot of your songs. What did he teach you?
He was my John Wayne. He was a World War II veteran, a Depression-era kid – all guts, piss and vinegar. He was the chief of police, and honesty was massively important to him. The thing he hated worse than anything was a thief or a liar. He also taught me how to fish. All my life lessons with him happened with fishing poles in our hands. Now, I take my kids fishing. Just sitting with someone and letting the water run by is amazingly powerful.

What's the most indulgent purchase you've ever made?
I always remember the gold watch my grandfather got when he retired from the police force. A few years ago, my wife and I were in New York, and I thought, "I'm-a buy us each a Rolex." It turns out Sylvester Stallone had just come in the store with his staff to celebrate the last Rocky movie. So I'm thinking I'm gonna walk in and impress them by buying two Rolexes, and they go, "Yeah, we just sold 16 to Sylvester Stallone." I thought, "Well, shit, there goes that."

Who are your heroes?
I meet a lot of people on the road, and many of them have lives that maybe didn't go as planned. But every day they get up at five or six in the morning, punch a clock and work their asses off. I have a ton of respect for that.

What's the best part about success?
The freedom to do what I want musically. The mistake a lot of people make is the more success they have, the safer they play it. That's wrong: I think the more success you have, the more dangerous you should play it.

What do you think you'd be doing if you weren't a country star?
I would have probably been a mediocre high school basketball coach. And a worse teacher. I love the coaching aspect, and I'm a competitive person.

Where does your competitive nature come from?
Maybe it's oldest-child syndrome, but I have always been competitive, even as a kid with sports. It spills into my career. There's a lot of people that play their 75 minutes and get off the stage. With this [upcoming] tour, I'm not afraid to play two sets in three hours. You want to make a better record than everyone. You want to write the best song. You wanna have the biggest tour. That's just me. 

Eric Church has announced plans for his 2017 tour. Watch here.