It isn't very often that I'll write about a current mainstream country artist, unless it's about something that's relevant to this space. Today is one such day. EMI Records Nashville artist Eric Church released his fourth studio album The Outsiders. When listening to the tracks on this album, from the title cut to the follow-up single "Give Me Back My Hometown" to the incredible "Dark Side", it's clear that Church has taken a huge gamble with this album at this stage of his career. And his recent interviews show that Church is more than fine with that.
The timing of this album is curious too. Coming off the platinumselling and award winning success of 2012's Chief, with "The Outsiders", Church has release his most bold and daring album to date. Church calls himself a rebel and with the release of this album, it's hard to disagree. In fact, it reminds me of another singer-songwriter who found mainstream success with the release of his first two major label albums, and then took his biggest career gamble with his third release. This occurred in the fall of 1988, and the artist was Steve Earle.
Steve Earle first hit the mainstream country music chart in 1983, but it wasn't until 1986 that he scored his first top 40 country hit with "Hillbilly Highway." That song peaked at number 37 and set the table for his first top ten single, "Guitar Town", which was the title track of his first major label album. More hits followed, including "Goodbye's All We've Got Left to Say" and "Nowhere Road." The Guitar Town album was certified platinum with it's follow-up Exit 0 being certified gold. Stellar songwriting and tight musicianship on the albums allowed Earle to breathe fresh air in to the format while performing a style of country music that set him apart from his peers. Then in 1988, he took the gamble of his career.
Copperhead Road is quite probably the album and single that Steve Earle is best known for. A top ten rock hit, that single is clearly Steve Earle's signature song. It's the song of his that everyone knows. In its review, Rolling Stone magazine gave the album four stars and lauded Earle as an "important artist" for that time. Time Magazine included Copperhead Road by including it on their Critic's Choice list. And country radio summarily dismissed the album altogether. Not one single track from Copperhead Road reached the country singles chart. With the release of Coppehead Road, Nashville itself seemed to disown Steve Earle for reasons only they could possibly know.
Some possible reasons? Well, the title track of Copperhead Road explored a returning Vietnam War veteran who hails from a bootlegging moonshine family, only to expand the family business by growing marijuana. A topic that would never be allowed to see the light of day on country radio in 1988. "Snake Oil" called out the President of the United States as nothing more than a con man. Other hot political topics such as homelessness was addressed with "Back to the Wall."
Eric Church has taken a similar gamble with the release of The Outsiders, however, there are indications that Nashville may be ready for an album that pushes their boundaries in a serious way. While the title track was a mix of hard rock with some country elements, it placed at a respectable number 25 on the country airplay charts. The single fared better on the overall singles chart which includes sales and digital downloads, where the single peaked at number 6. The follow up single, "Give Me Back My Hometown" has risen to number 14 on the airplay chart and number 7 on the overall singles chart. While the singles have not reached the top ten of the airplay chart which is Eric Church territory, it's clear that radio is willing to give this album a shot where they were not willing to do the same 20 years ago for Steve Earle and Copperhead Road.
It's a brave thing when an artist who is already doing something different and having mainstream success, decides to break free and create an album that speaks their truth. It would be really simple to keep making the type of records that are selling by the truckload and the singles that are reaching the higher elevations of the music charts. Really, who can blame someone if they wanted to keep doing that. But it's really special when an artist at the peak of their commercial success decides that it's more important to be at the peak of their creative success. It's special because in reality, they are putting their career on the line. Their future is at stake in some ways ... they could end up playing stadiums, or end up playing theaters and clubs for the duration of their run. It's a big difference in the pay cheque. They're aware of the risks, and they don't care.
How successful will The Outsiders be? Time till tell. 26 years after it's release, Copperhead Road is still regarded as one of Steve Earle's signature albums, even though there was really only one hit off the album and that was on the rock charts. Steve Earle never had another country radio hit after "Nowhere Road" and "Sweet Little 66" off the Exit 0 album. Early indications are that Eric Church will not suffer the same fate and it's hoped this stays true. The Nashville establishment does have a history of eating their young, let's hope they've grown out of that.
Flash back to 1988 and check out the video for Copperhead Road here
Flash back to November 2013 at the CMA Awards and check out Eric Chuch's performance of The Outsider's here