Posted: Mar. 30, 2012 | 1:59 a.m.
File this one under “Good Problem to Have.”
Last year, Eric Church was a long shot to win the Academy of Country Music’s nod for Best New Artist. And he did not. But he had fun playing in Mandalay Bay’s arena in its first year as a fan-friendly annex to the big dance inside the MGM Grand Garden.
“I enjoyed last year just because it was the fans over there. You’re not looking at the first 20 rows of the music industry,” he tells the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
“This year I will be,” he adds with a chuckle.
When he’s not making eye contact with label execs or maybe even Taylor Swift, Church will be performing his single “Springsteen,” and waiting to find out if he wins two awards: Album of the Year (“Chief”) or Video of the Year (“Homeboy”).
The country rocker also is Saturday’s main event at the Fremont Street Experience, closing out the annual two-night street party with free concerts from nominees.
“I’ll probably get in trouble if you give me that night off anyway,” Church jokes.
Country’s big Vegas weekend expands its public outreach beyond Fremont Street this year with The ACM Experience, a free retail expo in the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Saturday at the expo includes a “Salute to the Military” concert, with special seating for military families.
“It’s expanded into a lifestyle event. We just keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” says Richard “RAC” Clark of Dick Clark Productions, which helms both the Sunday awards on CBS and a Monday companion event — a country salute to Lionel Richie — for future broadcast.
“I love being the away game for the country artists,” Clark adds. “People love being able to come to Vegas and hang out in Vegas.” The awards weekend “concentrates all of Nashville in one area. And everyone gets away from their work life and their home life and it becomes a bit of a party. It translates itself onto the screen.”
Country’s overall popularity continues to blur the lines between other formats. Luke Bryan, Friday’s headliner on Fremont Street, was chasing Rihanna at No. 14 on Billboard’s album chart last week, and Church was at No. 28, three slots behind Lady Antebellum.
But on the radio, country’s dominance finds strength in unity; Church’s guitar-rock and Lady Antebellum’s pop harmonies are both Album of the Year nominees played on the same stations. Satellite radio is haven for splinter formats such as “Americana” or “classic country,” but most over-the-air radio markets keep country under one umbrella.
In Church’s case, “We were a little more accepted (by Nashville) just because of the numbers, the albums we were selling and the tickets we were selling” by the time “Chief” came out. Though he lost last year’s New Artist nod to the cute, teen-dreamy siblings of The Band Perry, Church had already “laid a pretty good foundation” for his blockbuster year.
“We never changed or backed off what we did to get that,” he adds. “I didn’t say, ‘I have to have country radio, so let me put out this.’ We just kept doing what we were doing.
“I like being the guy that’s kind of out there,” he adds. “I’m not a guy that’s ever been interested in being the mainstream singer of the format. And if you’re there, that’s a dangerous place to be. I would rather be a guy that’s always doing something different, that’s always pushing the envelope.”
“Chief” balances classic Jones and Haggard honky-tonk (“Drink In My Hand” and “I’m Gettin’ Stoned”) with snapshots of current rural America. “Homeboy” has the “little square town” narrator wishing his brother would give up the big city and his “hip-hop hat” and “pants on the ground.” The current single “Springsteen” — which Church never figured for country radio because “it’s long” with “a lot of space in it” — reminisces about young love blossoming at one of The Boss’ concerts in the ’80s.
Church calls it “taking what your influences did and then doing your thing. I still get beat up a lot by people saying, ‘He doesn’t use fiddle, he doesn’t use steel guitar.’ “
But that annoys him, “because there should be a natural evolution. That’s healthy. Where Merle Haggard grew up listening to Lefty Frizzell, or George Jones grew up listening to Hank (Williams) Sr. or Hank Snow, I grew up listening to that stuff, but I also listened to Metallica. I listened to AC/DC. I grew up in the ’80s, man.”
So far, the 34-year-old Church is enjoying the best of both worlds. Rolling Stone picked “Chief” as one of its Top 20 albums of last year, and Metallica picked him to play its Orion Music + More Festival in Atlantic City next June.
But first comes Sunday, and a live performance of “Springsteen” for those first 20 rows. “I think it will be a cool TV moment,” he promises, stoking the fires of competition.
“I want every artist going either, ‘Damn, I wish I’d thought of that,’ or, ‘We’re not going to beat that.’ That’s what we go out there to do, we do it every night. That’s just our attitude. That’s my band, that’s me. We’re going our there to crush it.”