Little things like “What music you listen to” get complicated when you go home to visit family, which is my excuse for why I spent Thanksgiving weekend 2013 taking in the mainstream country station at my grandparents’ house. I don’t recommend staying somewhere that plays country radio for three days straight, but in this case I deferred to the wishes of my elders, learning much more than I ever cared about Kenny Chesney’s Christmas wish list in the process.
But amid all the scrubbed-clean guitar tones and I’m-gonna-go-out-on-the-lake-and-drink-a-beer-‘cause-it’s-America-and-America-kicks-ass songwriting tropes, there rose a distinct voice. It belonged to Eric Church, a man who regards country radio’s Nashville stronghold with the same disdain that Mick Jagger held for shirts covering his abdomen. The song was called “The Outsiders” and in addition to fitting the themes of Tulsan S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel of the same name, it’s way badass by country standards: full-blown all-band chorus, rock ‘n’ roll organ, gearshift tempo swings, multiple guitar solos. Everything but the kitchen sink.
“The Outsiders” is also the name of Church’s new record and it’s his best yet, his strongest middle-finger at the Nashville establishment and the most fun I’ve had with a country album since Loretta Lynn’s “Van Lear Rose.” Like that record it’s got an enormous variety of sounds on display, expressing obvious discontent with the radio standard (see the intro to “Devil, Devil (Prelude: Prince of Darkness)” where he compares Nashville to a “glistening devil”). But what raises “The Outsiders” above a mere complaint about the status quo and into a potential game changer is its crossover potential as a top-notch, arena-ready Southern rock album. Like Church’s hero Bruce Springsteen, he’s building most of these songs big enough to satisfy the world’s largest audiences. Just listen to those massive drums.
But like his biggest hit, 2011’s “Springsteen,” most songs on “The Outsiders” have gooey, sentimental centers that the Luke Bryans and Cole Swindells of the country radio charts inject full of warm cheese. Right after the thunder and lightning of the album’s eponymous opener, Church downshifts into “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young”, a gorgeous, textured ballad celebrating the benefits of monogamy without wringing his hands about it. “If I make it thirty more, it’s the brown [hair] that you’ll be looking for, as you run your fingers through it and say ‘Slow down honey.’” Maybe I’m just a sucker for those kind of songs but that’s a pretty great way of saying “I wanna grow old with you.”