On a hot April afternoon in Nashville, Eric Church rolls his four-wheeler down a ramp from his black Chevy Silverado and slips on camouflage boots and a belt containing a knife and a pistol. "This is a .40-cal, and it's all business," he says in a heavy North Carolina twang as he cocks the gun. "It's for the rattlesnakes." If you're bit, is it all over? "You have a chance," he says, cracking a devilish grin. "But we'd have to move it along."
Church, 34, purchased these 700 sprawling acres in January. At its highest point, the property overlooks Kenny Chesney's old place. The land is Church's reward for a monster year – the country singer's third LP, Chief, debuted at Number One in July and has scored two hit singles: "Drink in My Hand," an after-work anthem rich in Stones-y swagger, and "Springsteen," a sweet, nostalgic tribute to one of Church's favorite songwriters. This summer he'll even bring his arena-rock-inspired live spectacle to Metallica's Orion Festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey. "We're probably gonna get killed, but I'm looking forward to it," he says. "It makes us a little different."
Church's bandmates, a tattooed crew who look more like Sunset Strip metalheads than Nashville pros, ride up on rented four-wheelers. After minimal instructions from the singer ("Fuckin' helmets? Seriously?"), he leads the band on a rowdy afternoon blazing through winding trails, stopping occasionally to crack a new Miller Lite. "Let's go look for some rattlesnakes," he says late in the afternoon, wandering down a hill to a creek bed. With gun ready and beer in hand, a misstep sends him tumbling backward onto his ass. When he emerges from the creek, he's covered in tiny ticks. "You saved your beer," says a bandmate, picking ticks off him. "And with a loaded gun," Church says, smiling. "That takes talent."
Church has plans to build a house, a barn and a 50-acre lake for fishing. His other recent splurge: a big Airstream trailer so he can take his wife, Katherine, and newborn son, Boone McCoy, on the road when he headlines his first arena tour, which will total 90 dates this year.
Earlier in the day, Church drove through suburban Nashville, arriving at the home studio of producer Jay Joyce, where the duo cut Church's past three records. Joyce shows the singer a photo of a church he's considering buying to convert into a bigger studio. "I don't want anything to fucking change," Church says. "Jay was talking about quitting smoking, and I said, 'Don't fucking quit smoking. Nothing can change.'" One wall is covered with shiny vintage guitars, including an old Harmony and a beautiful dark-red Gretsch Country Gentleman. "I played it on the record," Church says. "I said to Jay, 'If this goes double-platinum, you owe me that Gretsch,' and he agreed. I wish I'd said platinum. I figured out today that you're 512,000 records away from owing me that."
Church grew up in the small manufacturing town of Granite Falls, North Carolina. His dad was a furniture salesman, his mom a schoolteacher. In high school he played basketball, football, baseball and even golf until a knee injury his sophomore year derailed his plans to play college football. Instead, he dived into country and roots music, becoming obsessed with Kris Kristofferson and the Band. He attended North Carolina's Appalachian State University and majored in marketing, which may explain his fixation on demographics and sales numbers. When manager John Peets arrives on Church's land and tells him he's close to the number of tickets Metallica sold at Nashville's Bridgestone stadium, Church replies, "Tell them I want their number. I gotta beat it by one. I'll buy the tickets myself."
He's even figured out how to make some money off his prodigious boozing. Church and his crew drink so much Jack Daniel's that the company makes him his own bottles with a medallion of his face, and he sells autographed empties at his merch stand at shows for $200 each. "When I'm on the road, drinking is part of my game," he says. "It's not something that I run away from."
In college, Church formed the Mountain Boys, who played covers in bars five nights a week. After graduating, he moved to Nashville, taking a night-shift job working the phone for Shop at Home Network while struggling as a songwriter during the day. He had minor success; Canadian country singer Terri Clark cut his rocker "The World Needs a Drink," which peaked at Number 26. "It got to a point where it was kind of a joke," says Church. "Everybody that cut my songs would put the song out and it would just die."
At 24, he scored a meeting with Nashville heavyweight Arthur Buenahora, a publisher at Sony Music who also signed Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert. Church played him "Lightning," a ballad he wrote after watching the movie The Green Mile. "The hairs on my arms were standing up," says Buenahora. "Our format tries to paint these perfect Norman Rockwell pictures of stuff. Eric was missing that part of it, but there was something more real about it."
Buenahora set him up with Joyce, who helped drench Church's sound in sprawling arrangements, with drum loops, distorted banjos and heavy rock guitars. "I don't really know how to make traditional country music," says Joyce. "I'm just looking at it more from a rock perspective – What can I do to that banjo to make it sound cool?"
Things got off to a slow start: Church's first LP, 2006's Sinners Like Me, flopped, and he was kicked off a tour opening for Rascal Flatts in 2006 for playing longer than his allotted set time. "We've never been a good opening act," Church says. "The whole thing was fucked up. I knew we were getting fired, and the last thing I said before we walked off the stage was 'I'll be back.' I intend to be back, and I'm gonna sell one more ticket than they did." Taylor Swift replaced Church on the Flatts tour, an early breakthrough for the young singer. To thank Church, she sent him her first gold record. "She signed it 'Eric, thanks for playing too long and too loud on the Flatts tour, I sincerely appreciate it,'" he says. "It's awesome. I have it in my office."
Church wasn't able to book another major tour for four years. "The word got around that we were trouble," he says. The band hit rock clubs and state fairs, where Church remembers sending out his guitarist, Driver Williams, to play Pantera instrumentals before their set to clear out older fans. "It didn't interest me to play for people who were 80 years old," he says flatly. "They'll be dead soon anyway. By the time you come back on tour and play again, they'll be gone."
By 2010, Church was getting booked for tours with Miranda Lambert and Toby Keith – and now he's a major headliner of his own. A few weeks before the ATV adventure, Church is sitting in a New York restaurant drinking a Jack and Diet Coke before a sold-out show at the Hammerstein Ballroom. "There was a time there when a lot of the people were having Number One songs and we were kicking their asses on the road," he says. "It put a chip on our shoulder. It's still there for me. I go on that stage tonight and it'll be a boulder out there. I think it makes it better for the crowd. It makes it better for me. I'm pretty pissed when I go out there. In a good way."
The show is a pyro-heavy arena spectacle: Church rises from below the stage in a haze of smoke playing "Country Music Jesus," which begs for a "longhaired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash" to save the genre. During "Smoke a Little Smoke," Williams and bassist Lee Hendricks gather center stage while fog billows from their guitars. The show is also heavy on crowd participation: During "These Boots," fans raise their cowboy boots in the air and throw them on the stage. "When I walk onstage, I have an agenda," Church says. "I'm not fucking around. When we go out there, I want to be the act that, no matter who's in that crowd, they've never seen a better act than me. I'm gonna empty the tank."
After the show, Church has a meet-and-greet scheduled in what his publicist calls the "Shot Room," where he takes a shot of Jack with the assembled guests each night. Church stumbles in, shakes a few hands – a Fox News producer and a couple whose son in the military is a fan – but he makes a quick exit, out in less than 10 minutes. "I don't like the fame element," he says. "I don't understand it. It's like all of a sudden I'm a big deal and people want to take pictures. I'd much rather not ever be noticed except for a show. That would be fantastic."
In a genre where artists tend to be happy self-promoters, Church can seem prickly. "He's probably one of the most misunderstood guys in our format because he's really the kind of guy you'd want to be buddies with," says Buenahora. "You'd want your sister to marry a guy like that. But I promise you if he went up there and tried to hug everybody and smile and shake everyone's hand, it wouldn't be right. Eric is just Eric. What he does best is write songs and goes out and plays."
One of Church's major pet peeves is aggressive security; he punched a guard at a recent show for hassling fans. "I watched these people, and they weren't misbehaving, it wasn't unsafe, it wasn't anything like that," he says. "You just had a guy on a power trip. I got ahold of him – two of them, actually. It was fun for the fans probably. I checked YouTube the next day. I couldn't find anything on it. I figured there'd be something."
Driving through Nashville, Church speculates about why his brand of country is connecting with rock fans. "Rock & roll has been very emo or whatever the fuck," he says. "It's very hipster. We played Lollapalooza and I was stunned at how pussy 90 percent of those bands were. Nobody's loud. It's all very fuckin' Peter, Paul and Mary shit."
He also takes issue with music's current star-making machine. "It's become American Idol gone mad," he says. "Honestly, if Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green fucking turn around in a red chair, you got a deal? That's crazy. I don't know what would make an artist do that. You're not an artist." Cruising down a suburban road, Church raises his voice as he becomes genuinely angry. "If I was concerned about my legacy, there's no fucking way I would ever sit there [and be a reality-show judge]. Once your career becomes about something other than the music, then that's what it is. I'll never make that mistake. I don't care if I fucking starve."
This story is from the May 10th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.