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Eric Church: My Carolina

Eric Church takes CW home with him to learn about the places, people and memories that have made him the artist—and the person—he is today.

“There’s a cabin in a valley my grandpa built on your land
Your mountains are a canvass for the Maker’s hand” —Opening lines from “Carolina”

“I actually started that song one night [after] we had played Charlotte,” recalls North Carolina native Eric Church of the late-night bus ride when he began writing “Carolina,” the title cut of his excellent sophomore CD.

“And we didn’t have time to go home. We had to leave Charlotte and play something near Nashville [the next day]. I hadn’t been home in a long time, and we passed the exit on this bus that would take me home . . . and we couldn’t take it. We had to go on back to Nashville.

“It’s a real . . . melancholy, tough feeling. It’s homesickness; it’s a lot of things. Your life has kind of got in the way of bein’ able to do some things you want to do. I grabbed the guitar and immediately in my mind went to where I call home. A lot of people think that’s Granite, and I love Granite Falls, I’m from there . . . very proud to be from there. My family’s there [parents Ken and Rita and younger siblings Brandon and Kendra]. But home for me is 100 acres that was my grandpa’s land. It still is home.”

Fast forward to a recent crisp early spring day and Eric is driving his wife, Katherine, and some friends down a narrow, winding country road past 200-year-old white churches to those gorgeous 100 acres in the valley he longed so desperately to see that night on the bus. As he stops, unlocks the gate and drives down the dirt road skirting a meadow in the valley, some deer cross the field. On a tiny piece of land on the side of a hill are several very old head stones, one for a girl who lived just 11 years, 2 months and 5 days and died in 1847.

And by the time Eric has pulled across the bridge over the Elk Creek where he, his younger brother Brandon and their grandfather, Ralph “Rusty” Barlow, used to fish, it’s easy to take a look around and know at least part of why Eric loves this place so much. Of course, the biggest reason was his grandfather, who was police chief in Granite Falls from 1954 through 1981.

“He died in ’95,” declares Eric quietly, as he visits for the first time in years the cabin his grandfather built with his own hands. “We used to come up about every weekend and we’d stay here. We’d come up Friday night and fish Saturday and normally leave Sunday to go back. “My grandfather went up high at the top [of the mountain next to the cabin] and just tapped into a spring and ran a line to the sink in the cabin and drank right from the mountain, for years and years and years. No treatment of any kind.

“There’s a cave up on the side of this mountain where he kept his vegetables. It stays about 50 degrees year round. So he would store stuff.”

While it’s good seeing this property again, it’s bittersweet for Eric. But a memory of what he considers the best meal he’s ever had brings a smile to his face.

“One day we caught two small mouths,” he recalls with a smile. “We walked up and, on the way, we picked a couple potatoes out of the ground, we grabbed a couple fresh ears of corn. When we got up to the house, we fried the fish and he made a pan of biscuits. And we had the corn and the potatoes, and that was it. He baked one potato and he cut one up and fried it. And you’re sittin’ there eatin’, and everything came from a walk from the creek to the house. That was just so cool. And it was with him.”

It’s easy to see why Eric loves this place. And why the song “Carolina” is the thematic umbrella for the entire album, which all springs in one way or another from Eric’s time in his home state. The title cut of his first record, Sinners Like Me, also drew heavily from his Carolina roots. That CD drew critical acclaim and produced the hits “How ‘Bout You,” “Two Pink Lines” and “Guys Like Me.” And the video for the CD’s “Lighting” was one of the most powerful in years. So the new album has a lot to live up to. And it does.

There’s the record’s first and current single, “Love Your Love the Most,” which extols Eric’s love of Faulkner books, his mama’s cookin’ and even mustard on his fries [he swears he prefers ‘em that way]. And there’s the rockin’ “Young and Wild,” after which Eric’s new tour is named. And, yes, there may have been a yard or two rolled with toilet paper in Eric’s younger days and there might have been a speeding ticket just 10 days after getting his license.

So, any other wild behavior we should know about? “I probably won’t reveal it tonight!” laughs Eric of some possible well-hidden youthful pranks. “If I’ve made it this far, I’m not gonna divulge it now!” Whatever secrets Eric may be keeping, it’s likely they’re harmless. After all, this was a kid who was president of his freshman class, sophomore class and junior class—and student body president his senior year. And there are tunes like “Lotta Boot Left to Fill,” an homage to authenticity in country music and the hard work and respect for tradition that produces it. That’s something that’s not foreign to Eric.

“My dad’s a very goal-oriented guy,” he explains. “He came from a very modest family. He started out in a furniture plant, put himself through school. Worked his way up and crossed over into the management side. Ended up bein’ president of a furniture company and doin’ really well.

“But he did all of this with nothin’—the absolute rags to riches guy. He came from nothin’ all the way up. And he always has handled himself with integrity, too, which I think is really important.”

Before he started performing for a living, no job was beneath Eric. In high school, he worked at a golf driving range picking up balls that were sometimes under four feet of water, due to the range’s poor drainage. “It was horrible,” he recalls. “We wore waders out into the slimy muck and mosquitoes and smell.

“In college [at Appalachian State in Boone, NC], I worked in the cafeteria. Then I cleaned bathrooms. Then I went from cleaning bathrooms to adjusting skis. And my career doin’ that ended when one night I ended up hurtin’ some guy (he laughs) who was comin’ down the mountain. I had done it wrong and his ski didn’t release. It ended up twistin’ his leg and they traced it back to me. Hope he’s doin’ well now. So that was the end of Appalachian Ski Mountain. After that I started playing shows.“

While several songs early in the sequence on Carolina are definitely punchy, in-your-face rockers—“Lotta Boot” being one of them—Eric convincingly proves he’s no one-trick pony later with several songs that are more vulnerable and honest than anything else he’s ever done.

“Where She Told Me to Go” paints a vivid picture of a guy in a cheap motel with a cooling unit that’s set on “very cold,” “muddy water comin’ out of the sink” and “dirty sheets on the bed.” All the result of his needing “a little space” from the woman he loved.

And “You Make it Look So Easy” has a special significance for Eric, who sang it for Katherine when they got married at a resort in Blowing Rock, N.C., in January 2008. "I struggled with puttin’ that on the record, absolutely struggled,” admits Eric. “I thought ‘this is such a personal, just her and I moment . . . and so vulnerable.’ She said, ‘Put it on the record.’

“She still jokes that she swore she’d never be with a writer or an artist when she came to town,” chuckles Eric of his pretty bride. “She worked in the music industry . . . and she got both of ‘em!”

As he drives his buddies around town, Eric stops off to visit some places with especially fond memories, like the high school gym. As he walks in, he jokes, “They took my jersey down today before we got here.” Then he proceeds to put on an awe-inspiring shooting display. One shot after another . . . swish, swish, swish, swish. His jersey may not have been retired to hang in the rafters, but it seems like it sure could’ve been. The guy can play.

The next morning, Eric hesitates before entering Bob’s Barber Shop in downtown Granite Falls. Apparently Eric’s current hair style differs somewhat from what Bob gave him when Eric was a kid and Eric’s braced for a comment or two. “You guys all tellin’ lies in here?” inquires a smiling Eric of the 6-8 men sitting along the walls telling jokes and stories as Bob gives a customer a trim in the chair.

“No! Not in this barber shop!” a couple of them reply. “We don’t allow no cussin’ and no lying!”

“And smoking . . . I see you’ve cut that out, too!” jokes Eric, trying to make everyone out through the wall of smoke in the shop. As Eric leaves, Bob calls out, “You ever need a good hair cut, come on by. We’ll fix you up!”

“I learned to cuss in that place,” Eric reveals outside. “But I’m sure they told me the toned-down versions of their jokes.”

As Eric makes some stops around town, it’s apparent he is absolutely loved by everybody we meet. His second grade teacher, Mrs. Abernathy, even sees his bus going by the post office, gets in her car and follows the bus until she sees Eric strolling through his old neighborhood. She tries to recall the favorite song he used to sing in the second grade and leaves frustrated that she can’t remember it. Then, not 3 minutes later, she drives up again and says, “’Elvira’! It was ‘Elvira’.” That was obviously a memorable performance for her, but Eric recalls a performance of one of his new tunes, the powerfully moving “Those I’ve Loved,” that is among the most emotional of his career. The song touchingly recalls people who’ve come in and out of Eric’s life through the years and is one of Eric’s two or three favorites on the new album.

“One of the coolest performances to date was the first time I played it on the Opry,” he declares. “The people I think about on that song, one in particular, is my grandmother. She was a great singer, and her dream was to play on the Grand Ole Opry. When I got a chance to play, she was alive. She wasn’t in good health, but she made it to the Opry. And that’s the last time I saw her. I saw her in the lobby of the Grand Ole Opry. And she died about two weeks later.

“And the first time I played that song at the Opry, which I hadn’t written [when my grandmother was there] was a tough one. It was emotional. I even had some break up moments. But the emotion of the song translated to the crowd. They gave a standing ovation. Just me and the acoustic. It’s still something that when I play in that setting, that’s a special moment.”

As Eric contemplates how far he’s come from his early days in this town of under 5,000 people, he can’t go long without thinking back to earlier, when he took his friends to his grandpa’s cabin.

“It’s something that’s here (touches his heart) more than anyplace else,” Eric says quietly. “It’s good. I’m glad we’re doin’ it. But at the same time, I’m sharin’ a little piece of something that I don’t know that I anticipated sharing.

“There’s a lot of ghosts there. I can’t tell you the number of times today, I could see my grandfather either standin’ on the bank, or on the porch of the house, by the barn. All these different places. It was a little haunting in a way, but I think it’s okay. I think that’s what makes it what it is.”

Mama’S Cookin’

Eric sings a line in “Love Your Love the Most” about how he loves anything his mamma cooks. But what’s his favorite meal his mama, Rita, cooks?

“She makes one of the best chicken pies in existence,” proclaims Eric. “And she also does . . . well, it’s a dessert, but she does banana puddin’ that’s not even of this world. It’s ungodly. And even other people will say the same thing.

“Her secret is . . . I can’t believe I’m tellin’ you this . . . but her secret is she puts sour cream in with the Cool Whip. And it just gives it a little hint of tang that most banana puddin’s don’t have. It is fantastic.”

For more from Eric, check out the April 20 issue of Country Weekly.