Rebel in the Mainstream: Eric Church – The Outsiders
It takes a lot of guts to bite the hand that feeds you. In Haunted, the second track from Beyoncé’s surprise self-titled album, she launches an unapologetic attack on the record industry. But then, she’s Beyoncé. Only those with immense financial security and her global star power can make jokes about losing sales and aggravating the bosses while the same executives nod along and the millions keep rolling in.
In country music, where Music Row grudges are long held, not quite toeing the label line lands everyone in hot water. In the poetic, spoken-word introduction to Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness), an atmospheric offering from Eric Church’s new album, he nibbles away at the Nashville machine. “It all comes down to money, not the romantic art of days gone past. You forget that rule, you bet your backside she will bury it in your ass.”
The Outsiders, Church’s fourth studio album, gives the distinct impression that he really doesn’t care about the consequences of sharing his views. He would quite happily carry on playing any bar that booked him if it all ended tomorrow. He’s there to make music, not cash. He says as much in unsurprisingly guitar-heavy That’s Damn Rock & Roll.
It’s telling that Church’s defiant commentary still made it onto the album. The establishment needs him. What this record in particular brings to mainstream country is a little credibility in a sea of pretty boys, pop overtones and often interchangeable lyrics.
In improving upon Chief, which garnered both commercial success and critical praise, The Outsiders does what Kacey Musgraves did with Same Trailer Different Park: it manages to sound both contemporary and respectful of its outlaw heritage. Even in Give Me Back My Hometown, the first US single, crammed full of heartbreak and stalwart southern living motifs, he pulls off nostalgia without an ounce of frothy sweetness.
Balance touches every corner of this album. Beautifully vulnerable, tender tracks like A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young rub shoulders with gruff, dirty, The Joint. Like a Wrecking Ball has a deliciously sexy, bluesy tone, while Roller Coaster Ride and Talladega have the widespread appeal pitched perfectly for US country radio. This record’s real genius, though, is that it boasts catchy, memorable choruses throughout without compromising even slightly on craft.
A growing band of country fans are becoming bored of the pop factory some believe the Nashville mainstream has turned into. In both marching to the beat of his own drum and maintaining a sizeable presence at the top of the charts, Eric Church is flying the flag for integrity. And as the raucous title track suggests, we’re all very welcome to rebel along with him.