J. Freedom Du Lac Reviews Singer Eric Church: More Rock-and-Roll Than Country

Eric Church brought his country-tinged rock to the State Theatre on Thursday.
Eric Church brought his country-tinged rock to the State Theatre on Thursday. (By Kyle Gustafson For The Washington Post)
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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009; 10:26 PM

The nascent Nashville star Eric Church has a penchant for name-checking his outlaw-country antecedents; Thursday night at the State Theatre, he invoked Johnny Cash in more than one lyric, sang about the old Waylon Jennings way and paid tribute to Merle Haggard, declaring, "I pledge allegiance to the Hag."

But Church is hardly a country traditionalist, even if he sings frequently of his fondness for raw, real country music and the rough-and-tumble lifestyle that accompanies it. Whereas his songwriting is firmly rooted in the idiom -- right down to his occasional use of good-old-boy cliches, alas -- Church's musical heart appears to lie in the world of rock-and-roll.

That much was clear even before the shaggy-haired singer-songwriter from North Carolina sauntered onto the stage, as AC/DC, Aerosmith and Nickelback songs poured over the PA before the set. For his walk-on music, Church went with a snarling, heavy blues-rocker by the Maryland band Clutch.

As Church pumped his fist, two guitarists began churning out muscular electric riffs to the driving beat of "Young and Wild," a reminiscence about a reckless past. The song, from Church's new "Carolina" album, served to immediately establish the 31-year-old's bona fides as a lifelong hell-raiser: "I just grabbed that bottle and off I ran/I got a night in jail and a [ticked] old man," he sang in a pinched, twangy baritone.

The song also set the musical tone for the 75-minute set, which was loaded with thundering rhythms and a double electric-guitar attack that often veered into hard Southern-rock terrain; the raucous rock instrumentation tended to bury the banjo and mandolin parts, not to mention Church's acoustic-guitar strumming.

Not that he was apologizing. He emphatically declared, "I like my country ROCKIN'."

The line was from the banjo-driven rave-up "How 'Bout You," which was the lead single from Church's intriguing 2006 debut album, "Sinners Like Me." It's a fiery declaration of blue-collar Southern pride, with its uncompromising lyrics about scarred knuckles, scuffed boots, disdaining the entitled, respecting mother, saluting the Stars and Stripes and generally just living it up -- and, of course, rocking out.

"Give me a crowd that's redneck and loud," Church sang as the young crowd -- which did, in fact, appear to be fairly redneck -- roared loudly. "We'll raise the roof/Hell, I might just stay all night long."

Wearing mirrored aviator shades, scuffed boots, frayed jeans and a snap-button shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up, Church had come onstage holding a red plastic cup as if he'd just swept in from a kegger.

And maybe he had: Lines about cold beer were included in at least three of his songs, including a new single, "Love Your Love the Most," a down-tempo power ballad about Things Eric Church Likes. Among them: college football, good barbecue, Faulkner books, "anything my mama cooks," bass fishing, chewing tobacco, NASCAR, George Strait. "And hell, yes, I love my truck," he drawled -- a red-meat line that got a big hoot out of the crowd. "But I want you to know/Honey I love your love the most."

A tough guy trying to be tender without losing his Southern swagger -- it was hardly Church's finest moment.

Although he's a talented songwriter with a knack for crafting sturdy hooks and turning the occasional gem of a phrase ("I believe that Jesus is comin' back/Before she does," he sang in one particularly memorable song), his writing is sometimes obvious and unoriginal. So much so that Rodney Atkins had the exact same idea: His recent song "Best Things" is like "Love Your Love the Most," only with Merle Haggard replacing Strait, among other very minor modifications.

But when Church hits his mark, he hits it hard, as with "Two Pink Lines," a brilliantly written and rendered story-song about a pregnancy scare. "We were young and on fire and just couldn't wait," Church sang. "Six weeks in, she was three weeks late." And, of the pregnancy test itself: "One means none, and we're home free/Two means three and a diamond ring."

The rootsy, harmonica-infused song crackled onstage, with Driver Williams contributing pealing, metal-edged licks that only added to the narrative tension of one of the great (sorta) country singles of the past three years.

Later, on "Lotta Boot Left to Fill," Church turned his attention back to the genre itself, dismissing the latest crop of country pretenders -- albeit without naming names.

"You say you're the real deal/But you play what nobody feels," Church seethed. "You sing about Johnny Cash/The Man in Black would've whipped your" . . . well, you know.

The song was an update of Waylon Jennings's 1975 state-of-country survey, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way." Only its sinewy riffs and stomping beat were just a little bit country and a whole lotta rock-and-roll.

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