"'Sinners Like Me' wasn’t overly commercial, but I still play songs off that album in every concert. "

With Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Today we look back on Eric Church’s debut album ‘Sinners Like Me,’ which turns ten on July 18.

By Annie Reuter and Brian Ives 

Since Eric Church launched onto the country scene in 2006 with his debut album, Sinners Like Me, he’s been something of an outlaw. He’s the rare country artist in the new millennium to rebel against the industry and still get radio support; he doesn’t really “play the game,” and yet he headlines arenas. He was too rock for country (particularly in 2006) and too country for rock.

Like Bruce Springsteen, it took him until his third album, 2011’s Chief, to break through to the masses (he received both CMA and ACM Awards for Album of the Year for that album). It took a lot of hard time on the road to find and grow his audience, particularly due to his rebellious nature. He went from being thrown off of an arena tour, to headlining arenas on his own.

None of that, however, is what Church planned for when he first came to Nashville in 2001. As he tells Radio.com in an exclusive interview about Sinners Like Me, “I came to down to be a songwriter, I didn’t know how you would go about being a recording artist. I just wanted to write songs, it was what my passion was, and still is. I mean, that’s what I do. I enjoy playing the songs live. Now that I’m a recording artist, I enjoy recording, too; there’s a lot of freedom there. But it wasn’t what I came to town to do, I came to be a songwriter.”

The problem was, his songs were so distinctly his, it was difficult to get anyone else to record them. “When we tried to get someone to cut my songs, they would say, ‘It doesn’t sound like me; it sounds like his song.’ That’s what we kept hearing when I got my first publishing deal, and people would ask ‘Can we change this,’ or ‘Can we change that,’ about my songs. [Laughs] I just didn’t want to do that at the time. I didn’t think anything needed to be changed. There were songs like ‘Sinners Like Me’ that a few artists wanted, but it never felt quite right for anyone else.”

That was a problem for Eric Church the songwriter; however, it led the way for Eric Church the recording artist. “That’s when we started to see that there’s some identity here. They were my songs. But at the time, I had not settled on, ‘Is this what I want to do?’ And, ‘Is this what I can do?’ There were some times where we struggled, probably like a lot of artists do, when you first come out. We couldn’t get any traction; we couldn’t get played on the radio. Sinners wasn’t overly commercial, but I still play five or six or seven songs off that album in every concert. And there have been nights that I’ve played them all.”

The album kicks off with “Before She Does,” one of many songs on the album that seems to serve as a personal introduction to Eric Church. It lays it all out on the line and introduces Church to the world as he talks about his strong beliefs.

I believe that gas is too damn high
An’ there ain’t nothin’ more American
Than Mama’s apple pie
I believe in love; I believe in peace
But I don’t believe we’ll ever see it
In that Middle East
I believe the Bible is cold, hard fact.

But despite his moral grounding, he did something — the lyrics don’t specify what it was — that upset the woman in the song so much, that she left. And if the lyrics are to be believed, she won’t be returning.

An’ I believe that Jesus is comin’ back
Before she does

Church recalls writing that song: “I dated a girl when I first got to town, one night we had a big fight, and when she left, I called a songwriting buddy of mine, Jeremy Spillman, we were both drinking at the time, and I said, ‘Hey man, I need to get out of the house for a while.’ I told him the whole story about what had happened with the girl, and he said, ‘Man, you’re a good guy, don’t worry. She’ll be back.'”

“And I said, ‘Dude, I saw her [face] when she left, and Jesus will come back before she does!’ Then we started writing the song and I didn’t give a s— about the girl anymore. We knew we had something pretty cool.”

The title track has gone on to achieve classic status with Church’s fans; he was a lot more honest about facing up to your own contradictions than many country singers of his generation. For instance, he’s a God fearing guy who also loves rock and roll, not to mention marijuana. “We all kind of fall short,” he says. “I know I’m not perfect. I think I’m okay with the imperfections. I’m conflicted, a lot of people are conflicted. Johnny Cash was the same way, he was very religious but had a lot of demons.”

“And,” he adds, “To me, it’s always been okay to like marijuana and also be religious.”

“How ‘Bout You” was another mission statement. “I know where I come from: How ’bout you?” he sings. “I don’t need baggy clothes, or rings in my nose to be cool.” These days, though, Church’s audience has a strong rock contingent, including more than a few nose rings at each show. He laughs, saying, “It’s fine if you do that, I don’t mind. I don’t care what people do to their body, but I don’t think you need that to be cool; I don’t think people have to rely on clothing, tattoos, or whatever to be cool. That was a broader statement to a younger fan base; I was in my 20s then.”

Over the years, Church has played a festival curated by Metallica, and played at tribute concerts to the Band’s Levon Helm, Gregg Allman, and John Lennon. Rock music is a bit part of who he is.

“When I played [Metallica’s] Orion Festival, people scratched their heads, but I said, ‘Hey, I grew up listening to Metallica. I grew up on AC/DC, I loved the Band and John Lennon.’ This stuff was very much a soundtrack to my youth. When I make an album it is authentic for that rock influence to be there. There’s a lot of people out there that try to be rock and roll or whatever, because they think it helps their appeal, or their ‘cool factor.’ For me, it was just who I was. It’s what I still listen to, predominantly.”

Of course, Church is also a fan of traditional outlaw country, and he displayed that on Sinners Like Me with “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” a song that has more poignance now, in the months since Merle Haggard’s passing.

“I didn’t think about what it would be like to sing that song when he’s gone. It’s become such a special song now. It’s a ‘must-play’ because of what Merle meant to me, and to a whole generation of artists. There’s no replacing that guy in the world, or in music. He’s influenced generations, and he’s going to continue to do that. He’s like Gershwin, his music is gonna be celebrated for a long time. When I sing that song, it’s a different thing now. People have ‘Pledge Allegiance to the Hag’ shirts; that song is now a part of the show that people are waiting for.”

And the song wasn’t just a tribute to Haggard, it was a collaboration with him; the icon contributed guest vocals. “I said in passing to my producer Jay Joyce, ‘It would be cool to have Merle on this.’ As fate would have it, at the time, he had re-signed with Capitol Records, who put out his records in the ‘60s. [Church records for Capitol Nashville.]  Somebody at the label sent it over to Merle, he dug it, and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll sing on this.’ Merle was in California making his record, we were in Nashville. We sent the track to Merle. It was funny, I was on the phone, listening to his session in the studio. And he sang different lyrics than what I had written! [laughs] But I thought, ‘Who cares? It’s Merle!’ I just let it go. He did it one time, and he said, ‘That’s it,’ and he got up and walked out of the room. It was totally what I would expect from Merle Haggard! I didn’t sing Merle’s lyrics to that verse for a long time, but when he passed, I started singing it his way again.”

“When I think about being able to have a Merle Haggard duet, and being able to sing with him… there’s not a lot of people in my position who can say that. It’s crazy that it happened. When he sings the line, ‘Don’t cry for me when I’m gone, put a quarter in the jukebox and sing me back home,’ now that he’s gone, it takes on a whole different weight.”

A Haggard tribute seems in line with everything that Church has always been about. But pre-bro-country anthem “Guys Like Me,” in retrospect,  is a bit surprising. Church agrees. “I took some heat for saying this, but today, people always talk about trucks and beer and the things that people do in a lot of songs. But at the time that ‘Guys Like Me’ was released, it wasn’t like that. It was so different then, with what was being played on country radio. Believe it or not, back then, country was a very female-dominated format. There wasn’t a voice there talking to young males.”

“I chuckle hearing it now,” he admits. “Because it’s so formulaic today because of what it talks about. Back then, country music was Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Reba and they were dominating the airwaves. There were guys, but no one was writing songs for young guys. We used to go play shows – and my band used to bitch about it [laughs] – but there were no girls! There’d be one girl in the back with her boyfriend! It’s changed over the years. But that song was speaking to a young, male crowd, they weren’t being talked to by country or by rock and roll.”

One song that surely did speak to young men was “Two Pink Lines,” a song about a couple waiting on a the results of a home pregnancy test.

“That was released as a single… which was probably the beginning of the end for that album [laughs].” The song was as daring as Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X” and “The Pill,” and like those songs, scared much of the country music industry. “I love that it was on my first album, because it’s the type of song that you’d normally have do a few albums into your career. Maybe we were just too dumb or naïve to know it at the time, but for that to be our second single at radio… it didn’t really do well at radio. But I’m still proud of what the song was, and that we had the balls to do it. The subject is very real; for some people, it was too real. It made a lot of people uncomfortable. I always thought it was a hit song! But when we sent it to radio, the feedback was, ‘We’re not so sure people want to hear this…’ [laughs] I said, ‘I hadn’t thought about that part!’ But we were being real.”

“The thing to me is, in that three minutes of time that you’re waiting for the test results, you’re truly contemplating doing the right thing and staying with that person. I love that conflict: ‘Here’s a person that I don’t really want to be with, but if there’s a kid coming, I’ll saddle up.’ There’s great conflict there, and I think a lot of people go through that.”

Church notes that the song’s commercial failure was an important part of him later finding his identity and his voice. “That was around the same time that we got kicked off of the Rascal Flatts tour. We kind of became a pariah in the industry. Well, not ‘kind of,’ we did become a pariah. It’s such an insider industry, we were a new artist, and here we were rustling some feathers, and then there’s this song about pregnancy, and we’re getting branded ‘trouble makers.’ That was an interesting time. We got banished from all these places – so many of the bookers would not book us because they worked with Rascal Flatts’ people. We kind of got banned from playing a lot of places that country artists would play. We lost a lot of offers. So when we went into the cities, we ended up playing the rock rooms, the standing room only places that rock acts play. And it was there, in those rooms, that we first found that guy, and there was nothing in current music speaking to that guy. And that, for us, is really when the live show started to develop, the identity started to change, the swagger started to change. I still credit it today: if we had success with ‘Two Pink Lines,’ and if we’d stayed on the Flatts tour, we probably would have been playing those country rooms that all the other country acts were playing, and I don’t think we ever would have found our identity.”

Rascal Flatts, for their part, have denied that they kicked Church off the tour.

“They can deny all they want to [laughs]. It happened. It’s not a bad thing, I don’t sit back now and get mad. I’m thankful. Things happen for a reason. I believe that Taylor Swift was supposed to come in and take our place on that tour. Look what it did for Taylor! She would have gotten [to her level of stardom] anyway. But that helped her. It fit. We never fit.”

Still, he says, “I fully admit, I did a lot of things to get kicked off. Guilty! As we got booted, it defined us, it was a defining moment in our career.”

In 2014, he would get his redemption for that night, when he sold out his own headlining show at Madison Square Garden. It just so happened to be nearly eight years to the day of his infamous first gig.

“We played this stage eight years and three days ago and I told you guys we’d be back,” he said during his spirited set. “We come from the bars and the clubs and you don’t get to a place like this without people that believe in you.”

That night, Church played several tracks off of Sinners Like Me and each song has managed to stand the test of time. “These Boots” saw the audience holding their boots high above their heads; Church even autographed a few of them. Later, he’d close his set on stage by himself with his acoustic guitar for Sinners Like Me‘s poignant “Lightning,” the only song he penned alone on his debut.

“I dreamed many nights of doing this song in this room,” he said.

In the 10 years since Sinners Like Me was released, Church has continued his path as a trailblazer releasing album after album on his own terms, never worrying about radio airplay or notoriety. Instead, he focused on writing the best songs he could for the fans who had his back time and time again. Church may be an outsider, but he is their outsider and Sinners Like Me was just a hint of what would kick start a career that’s now been going on for a decade, and shows no signs of stopping.

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