The rising country music star will cap a long journey as the top nominee Thursday night, but that doesn't change anything as far as he's concerned. He's always angry when he walks onstage.
"I have a huge chip on my shoulder," Church said. "I got that from how we got here, and I think it's a good thing. When I walk on the stage, I carry all the times that other artists got other things, we couldn't get a song played because of who we were versus the song's merits, or the times we had to play 12, 13 days and still were broke. All those things I carry on that stage. I think it makes me a better performer and I think it makes it better for the crowd. I'm not going to lose that, regardless of the nominations."
In 18 months, Church's relationship with the Music City machine that runs popular country music has turned upside-down. Long an outsider, he's been shunned for his hard-edge sound, lack of hits and even his choice of eyewear. There was a tip of the hat to his growing popularity last year when Church got to play part of his song "Drink in My Hand" during the CMAs. "Drink" went on to become Church's first No. 1 and a year later he's got a leading five nominations, including album and male vocalist of the year. He's also got a primo performance slot on a show that will likely draw 16 million viewers when it airs live at 8 p.m. EDT on ABC.
Church acknowledges he did everything wrong on his journey to this point. That's what makes it all feel so right.
Almost every decision ran hard against conventional Music City wisdom, yet since the release of "Chief" in 2011, the 35-year-old has done no wrong. That album debuted atop the Billboard 200 all-genre album chart and went platinum, scoring heavy sales for his back catalog. He launched his first headlining arena tour. And the rise of "Springsteen" to the top of the charts further proved Church has overcome radio's resistance, the largest hurdle to a widespread country audience.
Country star Jason Aldean, a friend of Church's, believes that unwillingness to compromise is as responsible for his growing audience as his hit songs.
"He's never tried to conform to what Nashville or radio or anybody else thought he should be, and I think early on in his career it cost him a little bit," Aldean said. "He wasn't getting that radio success. But I think when he started releasing songs like 'Homeboy' and 'Springsteen' and some of that stuff, they're just great songs and really different. I think those kind of things let people know that's who Eric Church is and it really kind of set him apart from a lot of the other acts that are out there."
Church jokes about the decisions he's made and says a lot of it was simple survival. But the North Carolina singer-songwriter and his manager, John Peets, knew the key to success early on. It was just a matter of waiting for everyone else to come around to their point of view.
Peets said he heard it in early demos Church recorded while chasing a record deal.
"A light bulb went off," Peets said. "I'm from a dirt road in Ohio and I was just like every guy that I grew up with would be, drinking beer to this. ... It just resonated very instantly with me." From there, it was about honing "a fine point on a point of view."
That point of view was initially "off-center," Peets said, when it came to the way business was being done in Nashville. The mushy middle of country's demographic has long been women over 30. Since that crowd didn't seem interested, Church and Peets ignored it.
They hired rock 'n' roll producer Jay Joyce to make sure the music was as hard as possible, feeding on an '80s rock vibe that resonated in Church's youth. And he geared his live show to the people he saw staring back at him every night — young, often angry, men with beer bottles in hand and fists in the air. Church did interviews with magazines decidedly uncool with country's core like Playboy, Penthouse and High Times, eschewing sure things like the morning talk-show circuit and heavy radio promotion. His crowd wasn't up early and they weren't listening to the radio.
"They weren't somebody that were a very sought-after demographic, except for us — because, you know, I'm a guy," Church said. "And we make guy music. That's who we saw in these bars and these clubs, and they were seeking it out. And they were telling people about it and they were spreading the word. And then it changed in the format. All I hear now is people going, 'We want to improve our guy numbers. We want to improve our 25-to-34 male numbers,' and all these things. We built it on that demographic's back."
Church enjoys the focus the CMA's voters have put on him but plans no changes in his way of thinking.
"I feel like all we're doing is what we did back then; we're doing it on a bigger scale," Church said. "I think more people are paying attention now. It certainly makes me feel good that we stuck to our guns. If you ask me about being kind of in the middle of things, I like the edges. So for me it's about staying out there on those edges and being able to do something different every time. I think that's how we got here."