Producer Jay Joyce has brought out the maverick in Eric Church.
Joyce has always pushed Church's buttons in a "double-dog-dare-you" kind of way. Emboldened by the resulting success, the producer known mostly for his rock 'n' roll work and the rising country singer-songwriter took it to another level on "Chief," their third album together.
"I've got a buddy of mine who's a NASCAR driver and he says he runs the fastest laps right up next to the wall," Church said. "It's also right next to crashing. That's where this record was made — an inch from right into the wall. I think that's where the magic is and the creativity is. So on this one, neither one of us held the other one back."
The result is Church's most diverse and self-assured record yet. "Chief" takes the idea that music — even sometimes monolithic country music — changes and evolves from one generation to the next and runs with it. The 11-track album is full of surprising sounds and unexpected moments, almost none that fit your father's definition of "country" music.
Church's follow-up to the gold-selling "Carolina" is both experimental and irreverent, two things most country artists avoid in pursuit of radio airplay.
"Keep On" can only be described as country funk. "Hungover & Hard Up" was built over a hip-hop beat pilfered from another project Joyce was working on. "Homeboy" is laced with strings, gospel-style organ lines and arena-friendly rock riffs. "Country Music Jesus," complete with gospel harmony singers, is an ironic take on country music's sometimes disingenuous relationship with religion.
"He's got the right amount of focus and the right amount of (expletive) it, you know?" Joyce said. "It's just the perfect combination. I think he's always been trying to burn his own path. It was never a decision I was aware of. He was just always like that. He wasn't too worried about falling into that cookie-cutter Music Row thing."
Joyce called their pairing, suggested by Church's publisher, an "oddball choice" and Church admitted to reservations after their first demo recordings.
"They were so out there and different that I remember being a little scared of what it sounded like," Church said.
But a close listen to early cuts like "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag" showed the big rock hallmarks that define Church's sound were there even then. The yin and yang of their relationship was immediately apparent.
"He didn't know Merle Haggard from Bill Haggard," Church said. "Jay just didn't know. And I think because he wasn't exposed to that, there were no rules. Jay didn't know that in country music you're supposed to have steel (guitar), you're supposed to have fiddle. He had no clue. He just knew he was supposed to make the song sound the best that it's supposed to sound. That's what I love about him."
Contact Chris Talbott at www.twitter.com/Chris_Talbott or www.twitter.com/AP_Country.