There’s rarely any filler on an Eric Church record. He’s one country songwriter for whom the concept of the album still matters, and he pays as much mind to his deep tracks as he does his singles. As the North Carolina singer celebrates his 43rd birthday on May 3rd, we look back at the 10 must-hear non-singles of his career.
“Sinners Like Me” (2006)
Church’s 2006 debut album Sinners Like Me introduced him as a powerful new voice in the genre, one unafraid to venture outside the traditional confines of commercial country. The title track is a pitch-perfect piece of heartland rock, opening with big, distorted power chords before giving way to fiddle and acoustic guitar. Co-written with Jeremy Spillman, the song tenderly explores familial love and grief through a “long line of sinners” that spans the narrator, his deceased father, and all the men who came before. B.M.
Though never released as a single and rarely played in concert, “Lightning” — the tale of a man going to the electric chair that was inspired by seeing the 1999 film The Green Mile — is the stuff of lore for Church. It was the song that finally convinced Sony to give him a contract, and not without reason: Sidestepping debate despite its hot-button premise, Church zeroes in on the human tragedy, not only for the victim gunned down in a robbery, but for the dead man walking who was driven to the act by his “hungry blue-eyed baby.” The only song written solely by Church on his debut, Sinners Like Me, it was the clearest expression of this star-in-waiting’s vision. J.G.
“Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” (2006)
One of Church’s most often performed songs, “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” is a document of the Chief’s vital roots: his small-town lineage and the country music that raised him. Off his debut LP Sinners Like Me and written with Brett Beavers, it features a tender verse from Haggard himself and a downright anthemic chorus: “they say country’s fading, but we’re still waving that flag around here,” he chants. And early on in his career, it sets a recurring theme that would last all the way through Desperate Man and likely beyond — Church’s realization that even musical legends are mere mortals, but the songs linger on. M.M.
“Ain’t Killed Me Yet” (2009)
There’s nothing like an Eric Church love song — particularly when he’s chronicling what happens after the romance is gone and only a broken heart and an empty bottle remain. From his sophomore LP Carolina, “Ain’t Killed Me Yet” is melodic gold, showing how Church is not only one of the sharpest country writers around, but how he’s also an ace when it comes to making boot-stompin’ melodies. “It hurts every night when she dances through my mind,” he sings, finding good company in deep misery. “I still feel the sting of the loneliness, but it ain’t killed me yet.” M.M.
“Jack Daniels” (2011)
Jack Daniels may well be the most name-checked liquor in all of country music, to the point that its invocation can, at times, devolve into cliché. In Church’s take, though, the titular Tennessee tipple is less a hard-partying friend than a smooth-talking enemy, with Church admitting, “Jack Daniel’s kicked my ass again last night” over bluesy acoustic guitar and a laid-back beat. A co-write with Jeff Hyde and Lynn Hutton, the track is one of several non-single highlights from Church’s 2011 album Chief. B.M.
“I’m Gettin’ Stoned” (2011)
Chief was a breakthrough release for Church, and album cut “I’m Gettin’ Stoned” perfectly encapsulates why. First, telling the story of a down-on-his-luck dude firing up a joint after a breakup, it finds the sweet spot between heartbreak and hard-ass that Church inhabits so well. Musically, the track shows off Church’s soulful twang and penchant for a brand of country that incorporates plenty of rock and a little blues. Finally, the song is anchored by what has to be one of country’s more clever stoner lyrics: “She got a rock / and I’m gettin’ stoned.” B.M.
“A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” (2014)
Living fast and dying young may seem like a simple formula, but on this cut from The Outsiders Church ponders what happens when someone expecting to burn out faces down the reality of fading away. One of many gut-wrenching co-writes with Jeremy Spillman, “A Man Who was Gonna Die Young” sees Church at his sparest, plucking and popping the strings of an electric guitar that mirrors the rising and falling intensity of his soft, contemplative vocal. Rushing towards an early grave may just be a way to dull the pain, but as Church makes clear, the real work comes after finding something to live for. J.G.
“Devil, Devil” (2014)
If this song’s prelude (“Prince of Darkness”) didn’t set the stage enough (it’s an eerie, spoken-word lament on the poisonous state of Music Row), the giant, inflatable devil that accompanied live performances of “Devil, Devil” nailed it home. There’s something rotten in Nashville — and within us all — that ain’t leaving any time soon. Written for The Outsiders with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell, “Devil, Devil” is Church at his perfect metal-twang sweet spot, with tons of room for loud, aggressive guitar and rousing high notes from vocalist Joanna Cotten. “Be careful what you wish for,” cautions Church. “You might get what you don’t need.” M.M.
“Chattanooga Lucy” (2015)
One of the best songs on Church’s 2015 LP Mr. Misunderstood is “Chattanooga Lucy,” which tells the tale of a southeast Tennessee woman whose allure borders on the mystical. With its droning opening guitar riff, acoustic percussion, and falsetto vocals, the track is a foot-stomping blend of country and psychedelic jam-rock that only grows more hypnotic as the song progresses. Vocalist Joanna Cotten features on the track, lending vocals to the song’s huge, harmony-heavy choruses. Clearly, Church discovered a new sound to explore with the track — its signature is all over his new single “Desperate Man.” B.M.
“Knives of New Orleans” (2015)
Eric Church famously tipped his ball cap to the Boss with 2011’s “Springsteen,” but it’s this Mr. Misunderstood deep cut that bears the bigger Springsteen-sized stamp. An arena rocker about a killer’s flight from the scene of the crime, “Knives of New Orleans” packs power-chord pyrotechnics and big-budget bombast into four minutes, mixing a Nebraska-worthy narrative of criminal behavior with Born in the U.S.A.’s epic, guitar-driven sweep. When Church repeats “I did what I did!” several times during the song’s final moments, it’s equal parts confession and battle cry. R.C.