I don’t attest to being a huge country music fan but I have been listening to it in various ways for the last decade despite being a card carrying rock and roll fiend. I do see country music and the culture of country music as two separate things especially when you account for what is mainstream in country right now. There is something groan worthy about living in the plight of suburbia and having to witness my generation claim to be the epitome of the country music fan base. You drive and fix your own pick up, drink silver bullet, and hunt. Congratulations but your first car was a Prius and you still live at home free of charge. On the other hand country music fans still buy records and attend shows in massive droves which is something other fan bases fluctuate with.
I guess that’s why Eric Church works for me; he is the anti-everything while still somehow being exactly what the masses label him as. He is called an outlaw even if he doesn’t credit himself as one and he’s part badass although there is never been a true badass (sorry, Kid Rock). These are buzz words that music journalists like myself have riddled artists with to define a gut feeling and to christen someone who is close to their ideals musically. All those tropes right there feel like an eye roll but it works so well because it’s not trying to convince you of it. His fourth studio album, The Outsiders, spits out every possible freak out across the boards crying out The Stones and Bon Jovi while keep the simplicity of a Buck Owens or Willie Nelson. He is the dividing line in current country music that shares the stage with youthful young songwriters and Bro styled money makers.
Everyone who knows music knows the paths at which rock and roll country continuously meet and each genre lifts something from each respected camp. The title track lends greatly to, surprisingly, that of Black Sabbath, as a towering, bombastic hangover remedy that damn sure will wake up even the smuggest of music listeners. Outside of this number every song on The Outsiders discovers its own identity while still blistering with modern country traits. “Broke Record” with its string splitting, drumming off the side of a trash can style is sloppy, weird, and a real mover to boot. “Like a Wrecking Ball” harps greatly on a strong dose of Hammond organ and Keith Richards like licks coming across like a deep cut from the Stones’ “exile of Main Street” sessions. “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” despite a rather cringe worthy title struts and stomps like an AC/DC track accompanied by palpable, soulful female backing vocals.
Throwing around the artists that I have mentioned thus far makes The Outsiders out to be some unoriginal cliché of a record but the fact is it isn’t. It pulls no punches and leaves no stone unturned and while it all my come off as 12 tracks of being obvious its roots have no association with the sounds it seems to be rehashing. Not everything is the ‘wham bam thank you, ma’am’ fusion of rock and country as Church finds time to mellow and flesh out his personal side a bit. “The Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” and “Dark Side” both exhibit a sensitivity that is by no means forced as its honesty lies in tales of women who save the most crippling souls. Loners be damned, the outlaw in Mr. Church comforts in the way the breeze on the front porch does as night falls. The only way to really discuss his music is by being as colorful and imaginative in describing the genre he has been rising up in throughout his short career.
The production goes wonky and weird quick and is never completely satisfied with its direction after each song. It’s as if Church walked into an old shed filled with instruments and records of varying styles and jammed them inside a Gibson amp. It doesn’t always work out so well and the industry panning epic “Devil, Devil,” is kind of a gigantic mess that plays out far too long in comparison to the punctual and short nature of the previous tracks. But for every song that flashes big old belt buckle it’s nice to take in Church’s ability to tell tales of simple journeys like he does on the stand out road trip track “Talladega.” Closing track “The Joint” is an ode to the end of the Honky Tonk days while acting as both a laid back stoner track and rebel anthem.
It’s more than possible that The Outsiders is a rebel record of old in the phoniest of times and that’s okay when you live in a time that involves media creating identities when people don’t ask for it. After four records Eric Church is still rising and still taking risks with his music. The Outsiders is wildly entertaining and not sorry for picking at the past and setting it down in strange times with its own purpose.