Eric Church shares the cover of the very first Rolling Stone Country Issue (on shelves now) with Miranda Lambert, opening up about nearly being arrested at the ACM Awards, getting pranked by Brad Paisley, meeting Bruce Springsteen and becoming a dad. But there's a lot more we couldn't fit into the story — so here's the Nashville rebel on everything from his attitude and writing process to faux scandals with Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift:
On topping himself:
Everybody said Chief was the biggest record I would ever make. [They said] "Don't even go back in. You'll never top that." I used a lot of that as fuel: "Okay, motherfuckers. I know you think that this is it, but we can be way more creative, we can be way more out there." And I saw other artists trying to follow what we were doing. I thought after the Chief record, we got pulled to the middle and I became one of the guys that were the center of the format. And I hated that, because I feel like we made our best work from the outside of that. With the title of the album and what we were trying to do, I wanted back out there. And I think, musically, we got there.
On the stigma of country:
The stigma with country is it's not cool. That's wrong. Country is very cool. I look at award shows, I look at how country is represented. Country is represented with an asterisk. We have to perform collaborations. We have to perform a tribute. We can't perform by ourselves. Country music right now is the most popular American format. The most popular! Look at tickets, you can look at album sales, it is the format.
On country radio:
It's very feel-good. It's a little bit shallower than it was a few years ago – it's "Let's drink, forget our worries, beach, bonfire, lake." When something's working, everybody falls into a pattern. One thing I miss is turning on the radio and just having a song punch me in the gut, and, as a songwriter, knock me on my ass. And I think we could use more of that.
On being forward-thinking:
"Guys Like Me" [off Church's 2006 LP Sinners Like Me] has a guy that drinks too many beers. That was before anybody had ever put beer and trucks related in songs. Now, it's in every song. That song never went Top 10. Barely went Top 20. That's because it was too guy-driven – that kind of came out during "soccer mom" country period. There were no males in country music at the time in the radio world, and it suffered. And it's funny now to look at that song, which every song is a lot similar to now.
On his favorite pre-show ritual:
My favorite thing is to go out in the arenas like an hour before doors and run the concourse. And you get that anticipation. You smell the popcorn. You see the people tapping the kegs. And nobody is in there yet but you, but you feel it. It's my favorite thing on tour.
It drives me fucking crazy. For our [upcoming] Minneapolis show, we identified 900 tickets that were from scalpers. The building went back in and looked and found that basically, 200 tickets went back to one credit card. So when they figured that out, they had already sold a lot of those tickets to fans for astronomical prices. And we decided just to go in and cancel and let the fans know and start over.
It's a systematic problem with music, it really is. Right now, in Omaha, you can get on Ticket Exchange and pay $200 for any ticket you want in Omaha. Not true. They're taking the money, and they're not even on sale. There's no tickets on sale yet. [Note: This interview was conducted before tickets went onsale.] They don't really have them – they're promising the fact that they can get them. It's a damn scam is all it is. It's the mafia. The price of some tickets for Minneapolis right now is $1,200, and the price for Madison Square Garden is $800. It's stupid. It's not solveable until it's illegal. If a fan who gets on at 10 o'clock has the same chance as a scalper that gets on at 10 o'clock, I'm OK. The problem I have is that scalpers have a bazillion people working for them. and they have those bots that scan. So it's not fair.
I've been told to raise my prices. But there's guys out there that want to come to a show and bring their family to a show and are working a blue-collar job, they were there for us in bars and clubs, so I should raise to $100 because that's what the scalpers think? I refuse to believe that. The fact that I have to raise it because of scalpers, that's what makes me mad. It's not because I want to raise it, it's because there's a fucking scalper going to make a profit on it. It's nuts.
On socializing at award shows:
I genuinely hate it. I'm not comfortable there. [My wife] Katherine? Completely comfortable. You could throw her in with 40 strangers and she'll jump right in. I'm not. So I guess that makes me introverted. I went to a Grammy afterparty. Very uncomfortable. I don't let people in. It's a little bit of a trust thing. I would say even people now, who are my team members, who you would think are foxhole people, it took a while. You've gotta go through wars with me. I don't care who you are. Band members, managers label, anybody. You've gotta go through battle with me and swap blood. I'm not just gonna give you respect.
On offending Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert (In 2012, Church told Rolling Stone, "Honestly, if Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green fucking turn around in a red chair, you got a deal? That's crazy ... Once your career becomes about something other than the music, then that's what it is. I'll never make that mistake."):
I wasn't trying to be a dick. I was trying to make a generalization of my opinion, and did it poorly. It became sensationalized. [Miranda and I] saw each other later on, and it was fine. Blake, Miranda – I run into them and it's fine. I was being honest, and it didn't come across right. We've all kind of been around. It happens. And you kind of go, "Here's what I was saying." It honestly wasn't that big of a deal. It was more what people made out of it. And hey, that got a lot of radio stations, a lot of website hits and stuff like that. By naming them, it kind of took away from my point. I wanted people to hear what I said and go, "Interesting point." And I think what they took away from it was, "That guy is a dick." But, you know, that's fair.
On using co-writers:
Could I finish the song by myself? Yeah. I don't know what the song would be. These are people that I respect immensely, that are the best at what they do. I think, for me, you have to be true to the song. Write the damn song the best it can be written. And I think that's what's important to me. Whether it's two writers or 50 writers, get it right. And we try.
I'm a Strait freak. He has 60 Number Ones – and this is no bullshit, I went through his set list and found 35 Number Ones not on it. There's labels that don't have 35 Number Ones! Opening for him was the most fun I've ever had. Acoustic, by myself, in the round, scared to death. So working without a net was so much fun. And that's kind of what I want the next-next tour. There's nothing to hide behind. I fully believed, two songs in, that this could be the worst decision I've ever made. I cut my finger the day before with a pocketknife. I cut through it and sliced completely through my finger. Bleeding all over my jeans, and here I am, acoustic, but if I had been with the band, I'd have run that stuff just as quickly across my teeth. I had blood squirting everywhere. It was damn rock & roll.
Why it takes him three years to make records:
I think we make too many records. One record a year is crazy, to me. But some people have to sell tickets, the label has to meet their quarterly number, "We need a record a year." All of a sudden, the tail's wagging the dog. It's not the music, it's everything else making the music. That's just backwards. It's wrong.
I'm not political. I think it's all shit. I think the whole system is broke. Nothing can get accomplished. I think they're all full of shit, personally. I don't really get into that whole red-blue-conservative-liberal because I can't tell them apart. They all seem inept. So for me it's not something I focus on at all. I probably should be more political than I am. I just don't care.
On becoming a dad:
When you have a child, everything changes. 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.
On upsetting Taylor Swift fans (Church released a cryptic teaser video for his album showing Taylor Swift thanking him at the CMAs for getting kicked off the Rascal Flatts tour, which created a spot for her early in her career, with the words "One Will Rise and One Will Fall" scrawled across the screen. It was quickly taken down.):
This is about where my manager about got me killed. When Taylor was on the CMA awards thanking me for getting kicked off the Flatts tour, I saw it on the bus and loved it. What John wanted to show was we wanted to pay homage to our path and what this record was, going with what Taylor said.
[We meant] "The Outsiders" will fall and "Give Me Back My Hometown" will rise. I love Taylor. I love her art her creatively, we're buds. All of a sudden I'm calling out Taylor, and it couldn't have been farther from the truth. It was the most insane thing. It was so blown out of proportion. I've never had anything that blown out of proportion. The reason we took it down was I didn't like how the dialog was starting to shift to stalkers – the dialog went there. And I didn't like that dialog. It was never intended. Taylor and I laughed about it later. My son [two-year-old Boone] knows who she is when she comes on TV. He calls her Aunt Tay Tay. I told her that, she loved it.