- Associated Press - Thursday, March 31, 2011

NASHVILLE, TENN. (AP) - The decisions of country music maverick Eric Church usually spark strong reactions.

Release a single to radio about teen pregnancy? You can’t do that!

Put out another about smoking marijuana? Are you crazy?

“Everybody told us we’d lost our minds,” Church said. “And maybe we had, you know? But I liked the fact that it had never been done, it had never been said. I’m not interested in being one of those artists that makes the same music and does the same thing that everybody else has done. I would rather cross some boundaries and kick down some doors.”

That philosophy has led Church, 33, back from what some thought was career suicide and to a new kind of popularity that he might not have achieved had he continued down the path he started on five years ago. Church has already won the Academy of Country Music’s top new solo vocalist award this year and is up for the overall top new artist award against The Band Perry during Sunday’s show in Las Vegas.

Not many would have predicted this outcome after Church, hot off the release of his debut, was fired from the Rascal Flatts tour in 2006 _ at Madison Square Garden, no less _ for playing too long and too loud.

At the time, it seemed like a quick end of a promising career to most Music Row observers. He gave up a chance to play in front of thousands and started taking gigs where only a few dozen might show up.

“We started going back and playing clubs, playing honkytonks,” Church said. “We also played heavy metal bars as a country band. Sometimes there were 50 people there, but those 50 people, they were in to it. They were cheering like there were 10,000. I could just see enough of a spark then that if we kept doing what we were doing, even if nobody else would’ve believed it and everybody else told me I was crazy, I knew that eventually that would turn into something.”

He figured those 50 people would each go out and tell 10 more, and sure enough there were 500 the next time he passed through town. Then 1,000 and 2,000. Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert tapped him as an opening act and later this year he’ll begin headlining arena shows on his own.

Crazy or not, the guy was right. And he has been from the start, whether it was his song selection, venue choice or picking Jay Joyce, best known for his work in the rock and folk worlds, to be his producer _ something even Joyce calls “an oddball choice.”

“I think he’s always been trying to burn his own path,” Joyce said. “He wasn’t too worried about falling into that cookie-cutter Music Row thing.”

Church and Joyce, who teamed on Church’s first two albums, 2006’s “Sinners Like Me” and 2009’s “Carolina,” promise to push the boundaries a little more when Church’s new album comes out later this summer.

Instead of focusing on singles and hoping to load a record full of them, they focus on the entire album, painting a picture of where Church is at in his life during that point and time. “Two Pink Lines,” a song about teen pregnancy from his first album, was not an obvious choice for a single. “Smoke a Little Smoke,” released last year, is about enjoying mind-altering substances, not something radio programmers usually endorse (unless the substance is whiskey or tequila). There have been songs about the death penalty, Nashville pretenders, the greatness of Merle Haggard and Church’s boots.

He’s been rewarded with radio airplay, but that’s not the point.

“In fact there’s been some radio kind of songs that we’ve left on the side in the past because it didn’t fit as a complete piece of art,” Joyce said.

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