Eric Church is doing things a little bit backward.
Most No. 1 artists start with a single, follow it with a hit album and maybe, if the stars align, an arena tour/rolling house party. Church's album "Chief" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in July 2010, pretty much right out of nowhere, and tickets for his 50-date "Blood, Sweat and Beers" tour started moving as soon as the tour went on sale. But it wasn't until last week that the single "Drink In My Hand," a born bar anthem with a chorus that screams "sing me in an arena," hit No. 1 on the singles chart.
"I read a Billboard article that said the only time an artist debuted at No. 1 without a No. 1 or No. 2 radio single was Bobby Gentry in 1967," Church said from a tour stop in late January. "I was in New York City when ("Chief") debuted at No. 1, and everyone was thinking it would be Adele or Kelly Rowland that week. People were like, 'Who in the hell is Eric Church?'<2009>" he said with a laugh. "It was fun a part of that."
No one in New York was more surprised than Church, but the singer said he started mentally preparing for the aftermath right away. "I remember saying, 'Everything changes now.' With these arenas we talked about maybe curtaining off the upper level or whatever, and we're blowing all of these rooms out. To go from bars and clubs like a year ago to playing arenas and seeing them full, it's a bit of whiplash."
Church will bring that show -- no curtains, for sure -- to Savannah tonight; it's his first time in town. "We played a club show on Hilton Head at one point in time, but this is our first trip to Savannah," he said.
He arrives in town on a wave of good news. In addition to the good (if backward) chart news, Church was nominated for his first Grammy for Best Country Album this year. He also was named the ACM New Solo Vocalist of the Year, and nominated for New Artist of the Year at the 2011 CMA Awards.
And he should find a ready audience in the Lowcountry. Church and "Chief" are from the school of country that's closer to heartland rock, just with a twang and an increased amount of trucker hats, something more akin to Zac Brown or Lady Antebellum. Church says that influence comes from spending his teen years in the company of rock radio.
"We'd ride around listening to Hank Jr. and Haggard, but I grew up in an era where Metallica was huge, AC/DC, Petty, Bruce," he said. ("Chief" even sports a track called "Springsteen.") "With my generation of artists, we're drawing from who we grew up on, in the same way that Merle drew from Lefty Frizzell, we're drawing from AC/DC or Metallica. That's just a natural progression, and the right thing to do when you make a record."
The hard-rock history works its way into the live shows as well. "I went to see AC/DC when I was 16 or 17 -- I remember it being a little bit wrong -- but to this day I've never seen more energy at a concert," he said. "It's just such a full-blown rock 'n' roll experience that the music just became a soundtrack to the event. That's what we try to cultivate. Our shows can be wild, they can be rowdy, but most of all, people are there to enjoy the music and party with each other. That's the greatest thing about it: that unity with 10,000 strangers."
Still, while the crowds for the shows may be bigger, the after-parties got a little smaller when Church welcomed a son four months ago. These days Church and his family travel in a 16-foot Airstream trailer behind the tour bus. "It essentially becomes (my son's) nursery," Church said. "We made it a point (to travel together) at this tour. Normally showtime for me is bedtime for him, so the schedule works out."
The key, Church said, is locating and securing a balance. "Some people have a hard time doing this for a living. I have friends who are entertainers, and they get so involved in one side that they can't do the other one," he said. "For me it's just the balance.
"We just played a show in Memphis and it was sold out. I felt like a rock star," Church said. "Then it's offstage and back on the bus, and I'm changing a diaper. I went from 10,000 people to changing a diaper in a matter of 10 minutes. Kids don't care what you do. You're just dad."