IF IT'S NOT REAL, ERIC CHURCH won't sing about it. His high school girlfriend's pregnancy scare; the time he hid his weed from the cops by stuffing it into his boots; the bar-fight scars on his knuckles; how much he loves his family, cold beer and Merle I laggard; his quiet faith that every word in the Bible is factual - all of it has found its way into the rising country star's songs. And judging by how his young, blue-collar fans shout along and even hoist their boots in the air when he sings the song with that weed anecdote — "These Boots" — in these uncertain times, they see their own struggles reflected in his music.
As Church sees it, that's what distinguishes him from the Nashville cheesemongers —"the pretty boys acting tough," as he describes them on another footwear-themed tune, "Lotta Boot Left to Fill," from his exuberant new album, Carolina: "You sing about Johnny Cash/The Man in Black would've whipped your ass." Pretty-boy infestation aside, Church's genre is thriving in the recession: In early April, there were four country albums in the Top 10. Country's working-class roots have made it natural for its artists to address the economic collapse, as on John Rich's scathing anti-bailout song "Shuttin' Detroit Down."
Still, Church is bigger as a live act (and as a critical favorite) than he is on country radio -despite his old-school songwrit-ing craftsmanship, a velvety, tough voice that lands somewhere between George Jones and George Strait, and a penchant for crunchy rock guitars and even the occasional drum loop. "We've played with people who had the biggest h it, and a year later, nobody remembers their name," he says in his resonant twang. "Because people could sense something wasn't authentic about the singer. That's the number-one thing: authenticity. I can sense it."
Sometimes, he can even smell it. Take Church's boots, the ragged brown cowboy ones he's worn since his days as a high school athlete in North Carolina — they're so authentic that he can barely stand to be in the same room as them anymore. After 16 years or so, they reek. "These guys have played every show, these are my boys — they just been through a lot," he says, holding the boots in his lap as he tries various strategies – rubbing them with bathroom cleaners, stuffing them with dryer sheets — to reduce their odoriferousness. He's sitting on a black leather couch in his tour bus, which is in front of the Memphis nightclub where he and his band will play a raucous, sold-out show tonight. He looks at the boots sadly. They're not gonna make it," he says.
Church, 32, once had the same doubts about himself. By the time his schoolteacher mom's record collection led him to Kris Kristofferson, he knew he wanted to write and sing his own songs. But his dad — who was president of a sofa-manufacturing company until it moved to China - insisted that Church go to college. He headed oil to Appalachian State University, where he majored in marketing — and discovered the Band, Little Feat, Phish and pot. He also met the spoiled rich kids he credits with fueling a recurring theme in his lyrics: lazy trust-funders.
Church soon began leading a bar band, which occupied a lot of his time in his senior year — well, both of his senior years. He played Jimmy Buffett covers in spots so rough that he actually got into fights from the stage. But after getting engaged to a woman whose daddy pushed him to take a corporate job, he almost gave up on music. lie ended up leaving her in the middle of the night and heading for Nashville. After months of struggle — and a night-shift job manning phones for a home-shopping network — he scored a publishing deal and then a recording contract. And as he began to work with producer Jay Joyce (who used to be in a band with the guys from Ryan Adams' Cardinals), his label, Capitol, became convinced it had a potential star on its hands. "When he sings, it's country music," says record exec Arthur Buenahora, who signed Church to his publishing deal. "So productionwise, there's no need to try to make country music. He's a true-blue redneck."
If Church is a redneck, though, the definition of the term may need to be updated — he casually includes "Faulkner books" alongside "good barbecue" and NASCAR on a list of stuff he loves in his new tune "Love Your Love the Most." And though he voted for Bush in 2004, he turned around and pulled the lever for Obama in 2008. "The thing that's great about country is it's the best indication of Middle America's pulse," says Church. "It in America. I'm not going to tell the fans how to vote."
Later, in a backstage meet-and-greet, two young radiology technicians turn up after driving all the way from Gilmore, Arkansas. They show Church that they've grown their hair to match his shaggy-by-country-standards look. Church is getting used to this level of devotion, but he's not taking it for granted. On his left wrist is a thin strand from a parachute cord — a young soldier gave it to him after returning from Iraq. "He made this for me to wear," says Church. "He said my music got him back."