NASHVILLE — Eric Church's name wasn't pulled out of one of the winners' envelopes Monday at the Country Music Assn. Awards, but next year it could easily be a different story for this maverick singer.
His debut album, "Sinners Like Me," has gotten some exceptionally enthusiastic reviews since it came out in July. But he hasn't had enough time yet to fully establish his identity with radio programmers or land a CMA nomination. In addition, the 28-year-old Granite Falls, N.C., native only recently has been getting out in front of enough fans to start to make a significant impression, opening shows over the summer for Brad Paisley and, until recently, Rascal Flatts.
In fact, the multiplatinum-selling country trio dropped Church from the tour after a few weeks, reportedly because his music was a little too loud, a little too rowdy.
"Being a new guy in country music right now is kind of like walking through a minefield in Baghdad," he said. "It's just hard to get to where you're going. There are so many things that are stacked against you. On the radio side, there's so much competition for so few spots" on playlists. The same is true of concert tours.
"We like to play, our show is loud and our show is a little long," Church said Monday night from his record company's CMA after-party. "I never go out with a set list. I never have and never will. If the crowd is into it, we tend to give them a little more. So we were invited not to be on any more of the 'Me and My Gang' shows.... I just don't bend very well. I don't hold the [Rascal Flatts] guys responsible."
Yet rather than disappear quietly into the night, Church booked several free shows in clubs in the same towns and on the same days where he would have played had he finished the Rascal Flatts arena tour. He said he knew that some fans were expecting to see him, and he wasn't going to let them down.
That's just one way Church relishes messing with the status quo.
"I like songs that make people nervous," he said while sipping a double Jack Daniel's and Diet Coke in a hotel lounge here recently on his way to the airport for a few shows of his own through the upper Midwest and Northeast U.S. He also has a show Tuesday at the Roxy in West Hollywood. "I like to point out the 800-pound gorilla in the room."
Take his latest single, "Two Pink Lines," a lighthearted romp about a hapless guy's nerve-racking wait for the results of his girlfriend's home pregnancy test.
We were young and on fire
And just couldn't wait
Six weeks in she was three weeks late
One means none and we're home free
Two means three and a diamond ring
"It's a real situation a lot of people have to deal with," Church said. "I said, 'Let's write a song about it.' We kept it light. I didn't want to make a statement."
Still, it's a touchy subject, and country radio notoriously steers shy of touchy subjects, especially premarital sex.
If Church sounds eager to make radio programmers and fans squirm, he is. But he's also willing to get a little uncomfortable himself in the pursuit of his art. So he and "Two Pink Lines" songwriting partner Victoria Shaw headed off to a drugstore, awkwardly researching the accuracy of their song.
"We went down to Walgreens to see if the one with the two pink lines was still being used," he said, his scruffy black beard, a Von Dutch baseball cap and plaid Western shirt giving him more the look of a kid fresh off the farm than a fast-rising country musician. "We were walking around the store, two of us looking for pregnancy tests. We found it."
Church's initial response when Capitol Nashville President Mike Dungan offered him a recording contract in 2003 was disbelief.
"It's the old story," he said. "I had been rejected by many record companies; I wasn't expecting this. I'd been in lots of meetings where they'd say, 'We like what you're doing. Come back in six weeks and show us some more.' At Capitol they listened and said, 'We want to sign you as an artist.' I sat there in silence."
He had moved to Nashville in 2001 and spent his first couple of years trying to sell songs -- Terri Clark recorded one that became a minor hit, "The World Needs a Drink."
But more than the songwriting royalties he accrued, Church, who cites George Jones, Merle Haggard and Bruce Springsteen among his biggest influences, picked up valuable career lessons from observing closely the way things worked, part of the payoff of the marketing degree he earned from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., before throwing himself wholeheartedly into country music.
Having developed a strong sense of examples he wanted to follow, and many he didn't, Church cited a pretty lofty aim when he got his chance to record.