By Kristin M. Hall
Eric Church knew that his latest album wasn’t going to be a No. 1 record. And he didn’t care.
The country singer had done no interviews or photo shoots, no radio promotion or exclusive song premieres for “Mr. Misunderstood.” Instead, he gave the surprise album away for free to his fan club members.
It was just the way he wanted it.
“I don’t care about the hype,” Church said last week, four months after he released the album. “Everyone is so focused on your first week. But I am more concerned with week 80 than week one.”
Church’s penchant for unpredictability has proved to be what keeps his career evolving, his legion of fans growing and the accolades mounting. He is heading into Sunday’s Academy of Country Music Awards with six nominations, including his first entertainer of the year nomination and an album of the year nomination for “Mr. Misunderstood.”
“It’s about the life of the album,” Church said in an interview after finishing a day of shooting for his next music video. “Does it stand up over time, and does it grow over time? This record does.”
Since the release of his third studio album, “Chief,” in 2011, Church has taken country music by storm. That album debuted No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, earned him his first Grammy nomination and spawned his first two No. 1 country songs, “Springsteen” and “Drink In My Hand.” He followed that with the hard-rocking “The Outsiders,” which also debuted at No. 1 on the all-genre chart in 2014 and went platinum. His 2015 Outsiders World Tour had him headlining Madison Square Garden in New York City and the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
So Mike Dungan, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville, was surprised to get a call from Church last year saying he had recorded a new album a year early that he wanted to give to his fans as a present without any announcement.
“We’ve had a great deal of success with Eric,” Dungan said. “Artists earn the right to dictate on their terms sometimes.”
Beyonce, U2 and Drake have all dropped surprise albums, but no other major country artist has tried such a model. And Church had to put his unique spin on the process.
First, he delivered the music to about 80,000 members of his fan club for free in some form: vinyl, CD, downloads or streaming.
Then for the general public, instead of doing a digital-only release, Church’s album was also available in vinyl and on CD, which meant he had to hide the music through the physical manufacturing process. The vinyl records were pressed in Germany in secret and shipped back to the U.S. The CDs were sold to major retailers under the guise of a Christmas compilation album, and Church’s manager, John Peets, even called independent record store organizations to encourage them to order the title.
“My biggest beef with the music industry is the labels get it first, the critics get it, the press gets it, and the last people to get the record are the fans,” Church said. “It was important to let our fans be the mouthpiece and tell everyone else about it.”
Everything was revealed to the public on the day of the Country Music Association Awards last November, when Church premiered the album title song on the telecast.
The album is a raw and emotional tribute to those who keep him motivated, such as Stevie Wonder, Jeff Tweedy and even his own son, at a moment in Church’s life when he is hitting on all cylinders.
“Normally it takes me 100 songs to find 10,” Church said. “Not this time.”
So is everyone happy with how it turned out? The answer is mostly yes.
The album still peaked as high as No. 2 on the Billboard 200, in part due to Chris Stapleton’s breakout record topping the chart. And four months in, the album has sold a respectable 334,000 copies.
“I’ve got to trust the music on that,” Church said. “We’ve got a long way to go from where I want to be. But we will get there.”
“This will be a big Eric Church record,” Dungan said. “Is it the way I would have wanted it? No. But that’s OK.”
And if Church walks away from the ACM Awards on Sunday with any trophies for his unconventional effort, it would be a recognition that the risk is worth the reward.
“We’re still making the kind of music we want to make, how we want to make it and how we want to present it,” Church said. “So for me, that’s the thing I am most proud of.”