Entertainment Spotlight

Eric Church leads changing of country music’s guard

New names are flooding country’s charts, including Eric Church, a Sprint Center headliner.

Updated: 2012-09-27T02:26:07Z

By TIMOTHY FINN

The Kansas City Star

The name of the tour that stops at the Sprint Center on Saturday is Blood, Sweat and Beers.

Its headliner is Eric Church, a name that might not be familiar to anyone who is only a casual fan of country music, where he is a rising star among a crowd of male artists with more than a few things in common.

The show will be Church’s third in Kansas City in a little more than two years, but his first at the Sprint Center and first as the headliner of a national tour.

His stops in Kansas City mirror his rise in country music: In June 2010 he performed a free show at KC Live in the Power & Light District. In November 2010 he opened for Miranda Lambert at the Independence Events Center. His show Saturday is approaching a sellout; tickets for two or more consecutive seats were available only in the upper level at the back of the arena as of Monday.

In 2011 Church was a top new artist nominee at the American Academy of Country Music Awards, but he has been in the country music business since 2006.

His breakthrough year was 2009, when he released “Carolina,” his second album. Since then, he has had seven top 20 hits, including his current single, “Creepin’ ” from his “Chief” album, released in 2011.

“Creepin’ ” is No. 19 on the country charts. That song is one of 13 singles on the country top 20 chart by male artists, many of whom, like Church, aren’t exactly household names: Hunter Hayes, Dustin Lynch, Easton Corbin, Jake Owen, Luke Bryan.

“There’s a changing of the guard every once in a while,” said Wes Poe, program director for country radio station WDAF (106.5 FM), known as the Wolf.

“Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith — those guys have done well for a long time. But there are always new guys coming up. It’s a pretty big generational shift, from Generation X to the Millennials. Things are going to change quite a bit.”

Church is part of that shift. So are Jason Aldean and the Zac Brown Band, two of country music’s more popular artists. Like Church, Aldean and Brown are in their 30s, spent years playing small clubs and campus bars in the southeast and on the Gulf Coast before Nashville or country radio took notice. Aldean and the Brown Band are from Georgia. So is Luke Bryan. Church is from North Carolina. Corbin and Owen are from Florida.

“They built an extensive fan base two ways,” Poe said. “They did it grassroots through the Web, on YouTube and other sites, and they extensively toured small clubs in college towns. Most of them are pretty down-to-earth guys, writing about blue collar themes and what a lot of things people are concerned with.”

In other words, the protagonists in their songs work hard for not enough pay, drink whiskey and beer, maybe smoke a little weed and drive pickup trucks down dirt roads. They can bait a hook and skin a buck. They drag race, they flirt, they fight, they fall in and out of love. They love their blue jeans, their country, Jesus and their country music and its many legends, from Hank Sr. and Johnny Cash to Merle Haggard.

It’s music with cross-gender appeal because it has all the elements of the perfect date flick: action, male bonding and romance. And it helps a lot that the singer is typically rugged and handsome.

A few titles from Church’s “Chief” album are explicit evidence: “Drink In My Hand,” “Hung Over and Hard Up,” “Jack Daniels,” “I’m Gettin’ Stoned,” a song about an ex-girlfriend’s nuptials that mixes a few themes: “Yeah, the cans are on the limo and the rice is on the ground / They’re headed for the islands, but, hell, I’m already gone / She got a rock, I’m gettin’ stoned.”

The music itself is a mix of styles: neo-traditional country, country-rock and/or country mixed with Southern rock and, sometimes, a touch of metal. This summer, Church was invited to perform at Metallica’s Orion Fest in Atlantic City, N.J., in June, the only country act on the two-day bill.

In a review at Philly.com, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s site, music critic Dan DeLuca wrote: “Church’s band was tremendously tight, and his well-crafted tunes — the raucous ‘Drink In My Hand’ and more thoughtful ‘Jack Daniels,’ which he cannily dropped a Metallica reference into — kicked hard.

“To paraphrase a Hank Williams Jr. song he covered, Church on Sunday showed that a country boy can survive just fine, thank you, at a Metallica fest.”

Church told the Village Voice his band’s rock foundation evolved out of necessity: “We didn’t play the traditional country (music) clubs that everybody else out there played: Frankly our music wasn’t very welcome there, and we just weren’t invited to play.

“So we would have to play the rock clubs, and there were many nights in the back of bars where everybody in there was tattooed and never heard of you, and there’s 12 of them at the bar drinking, and it’s up to us to make them care. Some nights we’d go a little harder than other nights, so it’s not foreign to me.”

Aldean, a 35-year-old native of Macon, Ga., also spent years working clubs, then opening for country stars like Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts before Aldean became a star. His four albums, released since July 2005, have sold more than 6.5 million copies combined in the United States. They have produced 15 top 10 country singles, including seven No. 1s. In March, he headlined his first show at the Sprint Center and broke the attendance record set by George Strait, drawing more than 18,000 fans.

Like Church, his music is a mix of styles, from traditional country to Southern rock. In 2010, he told blogger Anne Reuter how his sound evolved: “I grew up in Georgia. My dad always had traditional country music in our house. His favorite singer was a guy named Johnny Rodriguez. So I used to listen to that stuff. Hank Jr., Merle Haggard. When I got a little older, I started to get into the ’80s rock stuff. Guns N’ Roses, Poison, all the really bad hair bands. Then a little later I got into the Southern rock stuff, the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’ve listened to everything.”

The other titan in this generational shift is the Zac Brown Band, which veers into several styles, including reggae, bluegrass, pop and jam-rock. The Star’s review of the country band’s show at the Independence Events Center in November 2009 said: “Imagine an act whose style is so crossover it implies and recalls everyone from Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith to the Dave Matthews Band, the Allman Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, the Band, Commander Cody and Jimmy Buffet. And Phish.”

Brown, 33, told USA Today several years ago: “The world out there is ready for the diversity we’ve all been exposed to all our lives. As a band, we’re not afraid to explore different things stylistically. The thing I love about country music … it comes down to having a great song that tells a story, a song that makes you feel something. If you have a tight band and great harmony, there are no other rules.”

The Zac Brown Band has been around since 2002, but touring in earnest since 2004. Its big break came in 2008, when “Chicken Fried” became a country radio hit. That song is filled with the images and icons of life in rural Georgia: cold beer, blue jeans, pine trees, pecan pie and homemade wine. It’s a paean to small town life and its priceless rewards: “There’s no dollar sign on the peace of mind I’ve come to know.”

The band has played Kansas City twice since its show in Independence, each time in a larger venue: In November 2010 the band headlined a Sprint Center show, drawing about 11,000 fans. In July 2011, it opened for (or co-headlined with) Kenny Chesney at Arrowhead Stadium, in front of more than 50,000 people.

Who among the rest of the pack will emerge to be the next arena headliner or stadium act? Poe said Bryan, 36, is a good bet. He has been through Kansas City at least three times, opening for Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw and then Aldean, all at the Sprint Center. Two of Bryan’s three albums have gone gold and platinum. More than a year after its release, his album “Tailgates and Tanlines” is No. 3 on the country charts.

Poe mentioned two other Georgians as performers to watch: country rapper Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert, who co-wrote the Aldean hit “Dirt Road Anthem.” Each has an album in the top 15 on the country charts.

Church is bringing with him two openers who are starting to make some waves in country music: Justin Moore, 28, an Arkansas native with two top 5 albums and two No. 1 singles under his belt; and Georgia native Kip Moore, whose resume includes a top 5 album and a No. 1 single, “Somethin’ ’Bout a Truck,” that has attracted more than 10 million YouTube views. His “Up all Night” album is No. 19 on the country charts.

Poe said many performers are rising faster because they are cultivating fan bases online. Those performers produce high-quality music on their own and take it to the club circuits.

“A lot of these guys have an established, passionate fan base by the time Nashville or the labels get around to them,” he said. “There’s a new band out of (North Carolina) called Parmalee and another called Florida Georgia Line that stations in the Southeast are already playing. Nashville sees things like that and jumps on board.”

And many have come through Kansas City as part of the free shows in the Power & Light District: Justin Moore, Bryan, Corbin and Hayes have all headlined shows at KC Live.

That was one of Church’s stops in Kansas City. He has since put his two No. 1 hits on the charts, including “Springsteen,” which pays homage to one of his music heroes and the album “Born to Run.” Church recently half-confirmed rumors that he might open for Chesney next summer, a slot reserved for artists of co-headlining status. Even Church is surprised by his rapid ascent.

“A year ago we were playing clubs and we were all crammed on one bus,” he told the Village Voice. “I can’t believe how far we’ve come so fast. It’s not supposed to be this way until you’ve got eight or 10 No. 1 songs.”

If the country music charts tell us anything these days, it’s that not much of anything is like it used to be.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/phinnagain. Read more from him at our music blog, Back to Rockville, at KansasCity.com.

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