Country singer-songwriter Eric Church isn't exactly an overnight sensation, having released his first album back in 2006.
But the enormous success of his third record, "Chief" (EMI Nashville), has catapulted Church from club act to arena headliner in the last year.
Church, whose only other local appearance was as an opening act six years ago for Brad Paisley, is making his headlining debut Saturday, March 17, at the Mark G. Etess Arena at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel. Oddly enough, Church will return to Atlantic City on June 23 and 24, for Metallica's Orion Music + More festival at Bader Field.
The North Carolina native is not just popular with fans, he's also become a critic's pick. "Chief," which debuted last summer at No. 1 on both the Billboard 200 and country album charts, was named by Rolling Stone, SPIN, iTunes and Los Angeles Times as one of the top albums of the year.
Ahead of his A.C. show, Church discusses the live energy fueling "Chief," his dedication to the craft of songwriting and why he gave a shoutout to Springsteen on the record.
Q: How did you try to capture a spontaneous vibe on "Chief?"
A: There's a lot of tempos - it's a rowdy record - basically from top to bottom, this record sounds and feels like its own setlist. We recorded a lot of these songs live - they're one take. When you play a show, you don't get to go back and fix your mistakes. We left some songs on the records with mistakes - it gives it a heartbeat.
Q: The title is a nod to your grandfather, a longtime police chief, and a reflection of your nickname. Where did you get the moniker?
A: I got the nickname on the road. I wear contacts, and the lights would bake my contacts, and my contacts would fall out. I started using mirror shades and it worked. The (baseball) hat was nothing more than to collect sweat. But the band didn't know my grandfather was chief of police for 35 years in Granite Falls, North Carolina. I thought it was a neat coincidence. The title paid homage to the live show and paid homage to him.
Q: How did spending six weeks sequestered in a cabin influence your songwriting for "Chief?"
A: It's the first time in my career I ever shut down. It was a chance to really look inside and see what I wanted the record to be. There was no cellphone, no TV. I was by myself for about a third of the time, and I had writers coming in, off and on, the remaining amount of time. I was surprised how creative I could be. I decided the album had to be as much like a live performance as any record we've done.
Q: Why are you so committed to writing your own songs?
A: I'm a songwriter first and foremost. That's what I came to Nashville to be. I had no interest in making a career out of singing other people's songs. Some people are great at it, but it's not my deal. It's not what I care to do.
Q: You give a shoutout to one of rock's greatest songwriters on your track, "Springsteen." What does the song say about The Boss?
A: I'm using him as the palette for the song. It's really about how music can transport you back in time, regardless of how old you are. It could be any artist, but I preferred to use Springsteen because of how much I admire him and because of how much his career has meant to me. He was my muse.
More about openers
Opener Brantley Gilbert is a singer-songwriter who is touring behind last year's re-release on Valory of "Halfway to Heaven," which he originally recorded for Average Joe's Entertainment.
Second opener Drake White is an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who's recording his first album for Universal.
Songs shouldn't remain the same
Eric Church, who writes or co-writes his material, hopes to make some noise with his modern take on the honkytonk tradition. He points to tracks like "Homeboy," about the divergent paths of two brothers from his current "Chief" album, as the direction he would like to pursue.
"For me, it's about pushing the envelope, and trying to find a different way to say something, or maybe a different production that sonically people haven't heard before. We're given a small window when the spotlight is on us. It's our jobs as artists to push the envelope."
He looks up to Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and other "classic guys" within country - and outside of it - who helped redefine their genres.
"When they came along, they did something that nobody else was doing - that's what impressed me and inspired me."