"I don't know how people are going to take it," Eric Church says in his twangy Carolina drawl. The 36-year-old singer-guitarist looks a little bleary as he settles into a leather couch at the Nashville studio where he cut his fourth album, The Outsiders. "Shit, I don't know if we'll make another one. I can't imagine continuing to try to push the envelope. How do you keep doing that?"
Church's previous album, 2011's Chief, sold 2 million copies on the strength of hits like "Drink in My Hand" and "Springsteen," turning the formerly struggling Nashville songwriter into an arena headliner. Last March, after a long tour, he headed to his cabin in North Carolina with a few songwriter friends and started to think about making a follow-up. "It's not a fun thing for me," he says with a sigh. "You're figuring out what's next, trying to mine everything creatively – just getting on that hamster wheel and working day, night, day, night. But I knew that whatever Chief was, we had to go somewhere else."
He continued working alone on his 700-acre Nashville property, chopping trees and riding around on his tractor. "Sometimes I'll just take a gun and shoot coyotes," Church says. "It's a good space for me."
He had 121 songs by the time he hit the studio with his longtime producer Jay Joyce. "There were probably eight or nine that are legitimate runaway smashes – song-of-the-year-type songs," Church says. "But we didn't record them, because I felt like we'd kind of been there."
The studio is massive – a converted church with the mixing board on the altar. Joyce cues up the LP, and Church taps his work boots to musically ambitious cuts like "Rollercoaster Ride," which starts with a vintage disco beat and evolves into whirling psychedelic feedback, and "Cold One," a breakup anthem whose bridge is punctuated by biting rhythmic stabs. "Shit, that's fun!" Church says, slapping his jeans after the track plays back. "People are gonna fall down trying to dance to that fucking thing!"
True to Church's word, The Outsiders features fewer pyrotechnic-ready fist-pumpers than Chief. In their place are tunes like "Talladega," a melancholy ode to whiskey-soaked nights at the NASCAR track, and "Like a Wrecking Ball," an Al Green-ish ballad about wild sex. "'I wanna rock some sheetrock, knock some pictures off the wall,'" he says, quoting his lyrics. "I like songs that don't beat around the bush." He stayed up for two nights writing "Princess of Darkness," a spoken monologue about Nashville's failed songwriters-turned-junkies – part of an 11-minute multisong suite that wraps with the furiously heavy "Devil Devil," where Church imagines a drunken, suicidal rampage after a relationship goes south.
Church – who's about to launch another arena tour – says those kinds of demons are very much at bay in his real life, where he's happily married and has a two-year-old son. "I'll have whiskey in my cup onstage," he says, "but I've slowed down." Church pauses, then flashes a menacing grin. "But I'm still faster than everybody else."
This story is from the February 13th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.