Eric Church: Nashville's dark poet is ready for some sunlight

Country renegade Eric Church lives and writes on the edge, but when he takes the stage on the ocean’s rim at the Tortuga Music Festival in Fort Lauderdale Saturday night, the metaphorical significance will be overshadowed by a more literal consideration: He loves this locale.

“The setting is incredible. When you put a bunch of people by the ocean, you create this atmosphere that gives them, maybe, this sense of freedom that you wouldn’t find in another place. It was one of my favorite shows of last year,” says Church, who was a headliner at the inaugural Tortuga Music Festival, along with Kenny Chesney. “It’s funny, I was with Kenny this past weekend, and we were talking about Tortuga and how cool it was. It’s one of his favorite shows, too.”

Church is joined by Luke Bryan in headlining Rock the Ocean’s second annual country-music festival and ocean-conservation benefit, with other top performers including Dierks Bentley, Brantley Gilbert, Sheryl Crow and Hank Williams Jr. The diverse bill also features Train, Ziggy Marley and Slightly Stoopid.

Organizers believe the two-day festival, which attracted 25,000 people in 2013 while raising $70,000 for local environmental causes, could top 40,000 visitors this year. Again the festival's educational aspirations will be front and center in the Guy Harvey Conservation Village.

'OUTSIDERS' HITS HOME

Bryan is an undeniable star, co-hosting last Sunday’s telecast of the Academy of Country Music Awards, where he was nominated for male vocalist of the year. During the show, Church delivered an angry version of his single “Give Me Back My Hometown” from his critically lauded album “The Outsiders,” released in February.

The hard-luck, hard-love sentiment coursing through the song may seem familiar to fans of a certain New Jersey rocker, and Granite Falls, N.C.-born Church recalls the crowd at Tortuga 2013 getting especially crazy when he played the hit single “Springsteen,” from his 2011, Grammy-nominated breakout album, “Chief.”

Filled with moody poetry, stark self-examination and fearless attacks on dark forces he sees haunting Nashville, “The Outsiders” is less a follow-up to “Chief” than a pushback, Church says. The success of “Chief,” he says, pulled him toward the mainstream, where he was “pretty uncomfortable.”

“I never want to be in that spot. We’re way better at the edge, from a writing standpoint and a music standpoint,” Church says. “I think you can see with ‘The Outsiders’ album that we consciously made a certain kind of record, and we pushed it back out to that edge.”

Fresh from a European tour, Church says that, apart from some quickie promotional club dates, Tortuga will be his band’s first U.S. concert featuring songs from “The Outsiders.”

"This will be the first full show [in the U.S.] since the album came out. We're excited to see the response, and how it all ties together with the other songs," he says.

DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN

Perhaps the best example of the desolate musical no man’s land that Church considers home  is a 13-minute trilogy of songs on "The Outsiders" titled “Dark Side,” “Princess of Darkness” and “Devil, Devil,” a meditative examination of his own shortcomings and an even more harsh critique of the heartlessness of the Music City. “The Devil walks among us, and Nashville is his bride,” Church sings.

“There’s a guy on a street corner right now, on Broadway, in front of a guitar shop playing for tips in his guitar case, and the difference in talent between that guy and the guy or girl who has all their dreams come true is very minimal,” Church says. “[Nashville] seems to be this cruel, evil person who bestows success on one and devastation on the other. I’ve always been very intrigued by the yin and the yang of that.”

Church does not spare himself, undoing the work of record label imagemakers in “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young,” which opens with, “This morning, I turned 36, and just remember half of it / You wonder how you outlived Hank and Jesus.” It’s probably the most autobiographical song of his career, Church says.

“The honesty was important on this album. I look around in music and, regardless of genre, I see people who are 35 and 40 walking around acting like or trying to look like they’re 20 or 25 to appeal to a fan base," he says. "I’m not trying to hide and be somebody else. I am 36. I’ve earned the gray hairs. It’s been a long journey.”

Church traces the rebellious DNA in his songs back to favorites such as Johnny Cash, Bobby Bare and Merle Haggard. But they all play second fiddle on Church’s Mount Rushmore of influences to one man.

“[Kris] Kristofferson. Hands down. He’s got a song called ‘Beat the Devil’ that, to this day, when I sit down to write a song, I’m still trying to write one that’s on par with ‘Beat the Devil,’ and I still haven’t done it,” Church says. “I hold him on a different planet of esteem. I love his whole career, how he had some commercial success, quite a bit at times, but it never seemed to drive him. It always appeared to go back to the writing, that was his passion."

BRINGING SHEL TO THE OCEAN