Eric Church wears his own kind of hat.
He's a country boy who loves to rock. His biggest hit is named after a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer -- "Springsteen" -- yet he name-drops Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and other country icons in his songs. He's comfortable chatting about both Merle Haggard and Mumford & Sons.
He's finally been embraced by the country music establishment, after years of operating on the fringe. Yet he believes the country genre classification is an outdated concept.
As if to prove his point, Church has signed on to perform at this weekend's BottleRock Napa Valley, a proudly eclectic three-day affair offering everything from indie pop and hip-hop to reggae rock and Top 40. He'll headline the festival on Sunday, after iconic modern-rock troupe The Cure and royal rap duo Outkast take the top slots on Friday and Saturday respectively.
Church has definitely earned his place among such distinguished company. He's one of music's brightest stars, having jumped up to the top tier of country touring artists with the success of his third album, "Chief," which won the Academy of Country Music Award for album of the year in 2013.
His most recent offering, "The Outsiders," which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, sounds like no other album in recent memory. It pushes the envelope in so many ways -- both sonically and conceptually -- and can be viewed as a kind of country cousin to Kanye West's "Yeezus." We spoke to the 37-year-old North Carolina native, as he was preparing for his trip to Napa.
Q "The Outsiders" is one of the year's most daring albums -- and I don't mean that in regard to just the country realm. It sounds so vastly different from "Chief." That had to take guts, given the last album's overwhelming success.
A Very rarely in anybody's career -- especially in music -- do you have the chance to just kind of go for it. You normally have all these voices and all these different people involved. We've never had that in our career -- we've always been given free range. A lot of it has to do with our past. People ignored us early on -- including our label.
When success happened, we did it on our own. All the people who ignored us just then came back and said, "Keep doing what you are doing." So, we were really able to have that freedom.
With this album, I really felt like there were no rules. There was not one time that we said, "Well, we can't do that" or "That's not this type of music or genre." I think what you hear there is a very free and liberated creative force.
Q I've read that you are really hoping that people don't listen to "The Outsiders" on shuffle.
A It doesn't really work on shuffle. There are songs that will not go well with other songs. They just don't. It's meant to be listened to as an album. I know that, in this day and time, that is a big thing to ask. But I do feel like there are people out there who want to experience it that way. And I do think they will have a better experience for it, if they do.
Q Did you grow up listening to albums that are meant to be experienced from start to finish -- like Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon" and Willie Nelson's "Red Headed Stranger"?
A Yup -- all those. I am still a big vinyl fan. I am a vinyl collector. It's one of my hobbies. One of the things I love about records and the turntable format is that you put the needle down and let it go. It's too much of a pain to skip (songs).
The real good albums from that era were made that way. They were made knowing that people were going to listen in order. I think that changes things, when you make an album you think about, "OK, this is what the listener's experience is going to be." In the digital age, and being able to skip around and singles and downloads, you no longer think of it that way. You just think of it as individual songs that you are putting in a package. I think that does the whole album concept a disservice.
Q So, you definitely think there's still room for the album concept in the 21st century.
A There's no way we're even talking right now if we didn't focus on albums from the beginning, because we didn't have that success at radio. I didn't have those singles, so I could go out and fly the flag and say, "Here's our hit song." For us, it was about people getting the records and adapting them to their lives -- attaching to them emotionally, playing them in their trucks or wherever, over and over and over. That's what gave us a career.
Napa Valley festival
Featuring Eric Church,
Outkast, The Cure and others
When: Friday-Sunday, gates open at noon each day
Where: Napa Valley Expo, 575 Third St.
tickets start at $149,
three-day passes at $279; discounts available when buying four tickets;