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.
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