Eric Church likes to take on uncommon points of view when he sings a song.
On his 2006 debut, Sinners Like Me, he was the voice of a death row inmate, waiting to be executed. One track later he morphed into a nervous teenage boy, pacing in anguish while his girlfriend took a pregnancy test in the bathroom.
That may not be typical fodder for songs that make the Billboard country chart. And for Eric Church, that's exactly the point. He's out to put some scratches in the polish of contemporary country music.
"The downside of the format is that it's too neat and too tidy," he says.
Church believes not enough of today's country songwriters think like musical innovators. "You hear some of these people saying they were influenced by Kenny Chesney," he says. "Now I've got nothing against him, but I think songwriters ought to be curious enough to ask themselves who influenced Kenny."
Church has been curious about all varieties of pop music since he started writing songs at age 13. Now 30, Church grew up in Granite Falls, N.C., a small town at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. While attending Appalachian State University in Boone, he formed a band, the Mountain Boys, with his brother and roommate. They played everything, says Church, "from Phish to Led Zeppelin."
Church became so passionate about songwriting that he wanted to drop out of college and move to Nashville to pursue music full-time. But his father thought that was a terrible idea, and he offered Eric an incentive to stay in school: He'd pay for the first six months of his living expenses in Nashville if he completed his degree. That motivated Church to hang around Boone long enough to walk away with a diploma in marketing in 2000.
Church earned his first gig with Sony in Nashville as a songwriter. His credentials included the Terri Clark hit "The World Needs a Drink."
His career as a performer began when he met Nashville producer and recording engineer Jay Joyce in 2005. Joyce fronted the '90s hard-rock band Iodine.
"Jay had been involved in every kind of music, from punk to Christian rock," says Church. "I think that's why we clicked, because what I love to do musically is to bring things I hear in other styles of music to country."
For example: "One of my songs, 'Living for the Light,' is a song I wrote during a time I was listening to a lot of Lowell George," says Church. "George had this quality to his music where he could be ragged in a really brilliant kind of way. I tried to bring that same influence into my song."
Still, Church's debut album struck a middle ground between experimentation and audience-friendly entertainment.
Maybe that's because Church won't dismiss the experiences of average people. "My first album was written from a male perspective, and frankly, I think there's not enough of that in music anymore," he says. "There's strong emotions, too, in the lives of guys who like cold beer and driving a truck."
That's why, neat and tidy aside, Church loves country music. "Country is just the best format for what I like to do," he says. "I wouldn't make it doing any other kind of music."