Emmylou Harris, featured in the 2002 debut fest, had some No. 1 country hits in the ‘70s, and 2009 act Zac Brown Band was starting to break away from its “jam band” chains, but last weekend Eric Church became the first bona-fide mainstream country artist to perform at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Mainstream as in a chart-topping country hunk who sings about partying and workin’ on his truck with just enough twang to suggest his denim trucker cap and aviator shades lean more toward NASCAR than Brooklyn Vegan. He’s the kind of country star who should’ve thanked his personal trainer right after his producer when he won album of the year at the most recent CMA Awards for 2012’s “Chief.”
Church stood in the wings of the huge Samsung Galaxy stage last Sunday afternoon with a banjo around his neck, sipping a Jack Daniels on the rocks as his band played the intro to recent hit single “Creepin.’” But when the North Carolina native charged out to center stage, any and all traces of country music were choked in the smoke machines and flashpot residue. Backed by a band closer to ZZ Top and AC/DC than anything with a fiddle or wearing a Nudie suit, Church led such an aural assault that his breakout smash single should’ve been called “Mustaine” instead of “Springsteen.”
For almost an hour, Church and his band didn’t let up and at one point during “Drink In My Hand,” his first No. 1 single, he stood on the center platform and simultaneously poured two cans of Bud Light down his gullet, barely spilling a drop. The crowd, which stretched back two football fields, pounded their fists and ground their boot heels in time with the double kick drums.
Church’s thunder was certainly powerful, but was it country? An hour before the set, the 36-year-old new father, who’s been banging around Nashville since his early 20s and has only been a star for two years, sat in an Airstream trailer in the media area and addressed the question of authenticity. “I grew up listening to George Jones and Hank Williams, but I also grew up listening to Metallica and Iron Maiden,” he said. “All of that together is what got me into music, so by staying true to my influences, I’m as authentic as I can be.”
His most obvious role model is Hank Williams Jr., whose “A Country Boy Can Survive” Church (Bro-cephus?) covers as an intro to the original “Homeboy.” But rock has crept into country music since Hank Williams Sr. had his first hit with “Move It On Over” in 1947, seven years before Elvis Presley revved up “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” It’s what the audiences want, though the country music establishment has tried to steer clear of “the devil’s music” from the beginning.
Church said he had trouble keeping gigs in the early years because he didn’t play for the two-steppers. He wanted the dancefloors to be filled with folks ready to rock out. It also didn’t help that he sings the praises of weed in joints that don’t make a penny off the stuff (unlike the fast food places down the road). Even as he’s a blatant nonconformist, such original tunes as “Guys Like Me” and “Like Jesus Does” are catchy enough to fit the Top 40 country radio format like the singer does the Levi’s jeans he endorses.
But even as he’s lumped in with the Carrie Underwoods and Blake Sheltons, Church said he wasn’t worried in the least about how his set would go over at a festival that flipped for street savvy rapper Kendrick Lamar and new wave warriors the Cure just the night before. He had killed it at Lollapalooza two months ago, so he knew his slant of Nashville would work.
But if there was any time he worried that he might be too country for the crowd, it was when he played Metallica’s Orion Festival in New Jersey last year. “That was the big test,” said Church. “I’ve been to Metallica concerts before and that’s a rough bunch,” he said with a laugh. “But I did have one advantage — James Hetfield (of Metallica) came out and introduced us. He saved our lives.”
Hard rock, hip hop, country — there are newer music fans out there that grew up on all three genres, whereas in the past kids were steered toward one one of them, based on their socio-economic upbringing. “I think having access to so much music, digitally, is really knocking down the barricades,” Church said. “It’s a good time for music consumption. Everyone can find and listen to what they want to. You don’t have to rely on the gatekeepers any more.” With such streaming services as Spotify, music fans can be their own radio DJ, with the format limited only by their own imaginations.
Church ended his set with the smash hit about a couple falling in love at first sight in the crowd of a big concert. On the radio, “Springsteen” is as country as Church’s exaggerated Carolina twang, but at Zilker Park it became a rock anthem, segueing into “Born To Run” by the man himself. Ten years ago, you couldn’t reference Bruce Springsteen in a country song, let alone give the rocker’s name to the title. You couldn’t have rap verses, as Jason Aldean had on “Dirt Road Anthem.” But it’s not 2003, 1993 or 1953 and fans no longer come in a box.
Many of the same ACL-ers who were wagging their digits in the air to Lamar were doing the same to Church. The musical difference between many artists at ACL is night and day, but Zilker Park is big enough to hold and embrace them all.
Eric Church at ACL
6 p.m. Sunday on the Samsung Galaxy stage.