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Nashville has a tradition of separating the singer from the songwriting.
Whether you want to point to George Jones moaning about having to record "He Stopped Loving Her Today" until it became his signature hit or the army of songwriters behind Kenny Chesney's musical juggernaut, the fact is country music, new and old, has been built on made-to-order material. But Eric Church, a singer/songwriter and country music hit-maker who will make a stop on Friday at the Riverfest Amphitheatre with Luke Bryan, sees a new generation of Nashville talent coming along.
"There's a whole new group of us that write our own songs," says Church. "You look at Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert and myself and you see a different group."
This group that Church mentions has already been labeled neo-outlaws, a new generation of scruffy artists who are following in the non-traditional footsteps of Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Whether Church and his peers can make the contributions that the first outlaws did of course remains to be seen, but they certainly stand apart from the normal clean-cut product groomed and set out on the shelves by the Nashville execs.
Church, a native of Granite Falls, N.C., is now two albums into a major label career — "Sinners Like Me" in 2006 and "Carolina" in '09 — that's been allowed to continue for this short period because he's had some success on all-important country radio. He began as one of the many faceless songwriters toiling away behind the scenes in the county music capitol. He wrote Terri Clark's "The World Needs a Drink" and others but the aim was to perform in front of people — ideally, more than the sparse crowds that turned out during his first shows in Nashville.
Songs like "Two Pink Lines," a funny yet bracing song about a pregnancy test, and "Lightning," about a man facing the electric chair, have helped Church build up a small but fierce fan base. He claims that when he signed with Capitol that he was able to set his own terms, one of those being to not worry about what songs are going to be hits.
"I do it different," says Church. "I am old school. I don't know what the single is, I just want to make a record. Albums, I think that is where you make your fans that stay with you."
Church also doesn't feel like he has to make a record that has the traditional imprint of country sound. He has a willing partner in his producer, Jay Joyce, who held the title on both of Church's album.
"He doesn't even listen to country songs," says Church of Joyce. "He's played in a punk band. We don't ever go in thinking it's gotta be this way and we have to put a steel guitar or fiddle here. We cut the record in his basement. He's like a mad scientist."
Despite his unorthodox ways, Church is a passionate defender of country music and the country music format.
"It's the coolest format on the planet," says Church. "We have Johnny Cash in our format and he's the coolest guy ever. I think you see kids coming back around to country music today. Before you didn't see kids in college wearing country T-shirts but today you see them wearing shirts with country artists. That is a change."
Eric Church and Luke Bryan
With Randy Houser & Whiskey Meyers
Friday, July 30, Riverfest Amphitheatre
Gates open at 5:30 p.m.
Show starts at 6:30 p.m.
$25 (lawn seats), $35 (general admission pit and reserved)
Lawn seat price day of show: $29.50
Tickets available at all Ticketmaster Outlets, charge by phone at 800-745-3000 or on line at www.ticketmaster.com.