When Eric Church’s debut album Sinners Like Me hit in 2006, it signaled a brash new direction for country music. Here was an artist who, although leaning heavily on rock & roll, maintained a foothold in country, especially with his enlightened workingman lyricism. Naturally, Church evolved over his next four albums, embracing both harder sounds and a more singer-songwriter vibe that culminated with the surprise release Mr. Misunderstood in 2015 (he’ll further his catalog with the new Desperate Man on October 5th). In celebration of Church gracing the August cover of Rolling Stone, we look at the Chief’s 10 must-hear songs.
“How ‘Bout You” (2006)
“I like my country rocking, how ’bout you?” Church asks on his first-ever single, and as far as mission statements go, it’s a fitting one for Mr. Misunderstood. With its ricocheting reverb that hearkens back to the tube-steak boogie of ZZ Top, “How ‘Bout You” – Church co-wrote with his late brother, Brandon, and Brett Beavers – lays out an uptempo, rock & roll-friendly template that still sounds familiar today, even if the shaggy-haired singer in the handheld music video is nigh-on unrecognizable. But most important is the image those lyrics conjure, positioning Church as a dusty boot-wearing everyman whose special trait is that “there’s a whole lot more like [him].” J.G.
“These Boots” (2006)
The only non-single on this list, “These Boots” may nonetheless be the quintessential Church song. A deep cut off Sinners Like Me and a must-play live favorite, during which fans hoist their own boots aloft, the song frames key moments in the narrator’s life through his road-worn shit-kickers. He’s wearing them onstage with his bar band, stuffing them with weed during a traffic stop and, in regrettable hindsight, using them to walk out on a lover. “These Boots” has become a highlight of Church’s catalog, a palpable point of connection with his audience, and a song with which he’ll forever be associated. J.H.
“Smoke a Little Smoke” (2009)
With its stoned swagger and bluesy buzz, “Smoke a Little Smoke” certainly isn’t a tribute to nicotine. “Dig down deep, find my stash, light it up, take me back,” Church sings during the song’s final moments, outlining a plan to cure himself (however temporarily) of a buzz-killing heartbreak. While a string of red-eyed rebels have sung pot’s praises long before Church, “Smoke a Little Smoke” pointedly cracked the Top 20 in 2010, a year whose biggest hits – from Luke Bryan’s whiskey-crazy “Rain Is a Good Thing” to Billy Currington’s “Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer” – focused on a more publicly-sanctioned vice. Church’s song advocated drinking, too. . .but mostly as a chaser for a long, relaxing toke. R.C.
“Drink in My Hand” (2011)
“Drink in My Hand” was a watershed moment for Church, as the Chief single was his first to hit Number One on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart following its release to radio in August 2011. It even cracked the Top 40 on Billboard‘s Hot 100. Church co-wrote the live favorite with Luke Laird and Michael P. Heeney while out on the road with Miranda Lambert, the three coming together to write as Church was still hyped up from the energy of the crowd. You can hear that electricity spilling over in “Drink”, from Church’s devil-may-care vocal delivery to the classic-rock-inspired opening riff. B.M.
Written by Church with Nashville songwriter Casey Beathard, this unexpected hit was inspired by Beathard’s wild-child son, country singer Tucker Beathard. But Church makes it universal, speaking to any small-town kid who mistakenly tried to play a tough guy in the big city, “tattoo on your neck, fake gold on your teeth.” Just when it seems like the lyrics are tip-toeing into cliché, the singer-songwriter flips the message on its head, transforming the chorus into a plea to “come on home, boy.” Before it’s both too late and, even more tragically, you lose sight of who you really are. J.H.
In country music, the most commonly invoked idols include Hank, Cash, Waylon, Patsy and Dolly. For Church, though, that list also includes Bruce Springsteen. A cut from Church’s third album Chief, the Grammy-nominated single marked another Billboard Hot Country Songs chart-topper for the singer, and was also his first to crack the Hot 100’s Top 20. Written with Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell, the nostalgic ballad is a clever reflection on young love told through references to Springsteen staples like “Born to Run,” “Glory Days,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” and “I’m on Fire.” “Funny how a melody sounds like a memory,” Church sings, summing up the evocative power of music in one succinct lyric. B.M.
A song about racing that’s not really about racing, “Talladega” is an ode to “turnin’ up, slowin’ down, and cars that go real fast.” Co-written by Church and Luke Laird, the slow-burn ballad may have been triggered by seeing a NASCAR race on TV, but its real inspiration comes from memories of hell-raising high-schoolers and having hot fun in the summertime. The scrambled harmonics of the guitar solo that closes out the song, one of five hit singles from The Outsiders, invokes the roar of the engines, and the beer-drinking buddies it depicts could be sitting in the grandstands just as easily as their own backyards – moments, either way, that tend to pass us by at breakneck speed. J.G.
“Give Me Back My Hometown” (2014)
Eric Church has a gift for spinning nostalgic yarns into arena rock anthems, and The Outsiders hit “Give Me Back My Hometown” is no exception. Written with Luke Laird, the song is a sly adaptation of a country trope, using small-town imagery and anecdotes – an otherwise ordinary Pizza Hut becomes a place of meaning – to convey the narrator’s regret at losing a romantic flame. Frequent Church collaborator and producer Jay Joyce gives the track a soaring feel with a slowly building arrangement and stadium sing-along backing vocals. It’s the chorus, though, that brings the feels, a plea that is both pained and cathartic. B.M.
“Mr. Misunderstood” (2015)
The title track from Church’s The Outsiders follow-up is equal parts autobiography and “It Gets Better”-worthy morale boost to teenage outcasts. “Hey there, weird kid in your high-top shoes sitting in the back of the class – I was just like you,” goes the first line, setting the scene for a left-field country song that name-checks Jeff Tweedy, rhymes “Ray Wylie Hubbard” with “one bad mother” and changes tempos often. For Church fans looking to hoist their freak flag high, “Mr. Misunderstood” might as well be the national anthem.
“Record Year” (2015)
Talk to any die-hard Church fans, and they’re sure to tell you that music – and the Chief’s in particular – has serious healing powers. The songwriter explores that phenomenon in “Record Year,” off his 2015 surprise release Mr. Misunderstood. Written with Jeff Hyde, the track plays off the metaphor of a vinyl turntable to illustrate the aftermath of a broken heart, citing works by Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, James Brown and other iconic artists as objects of healing in what Church cleverly deems a “record year.” It’s Church’s musical influences in three minutes flat. B.M.