By David Menconi
Country singer Eric Church's trademark onstage attire didn't come from image-mongering but necessity. The Appalachian State University alumnus kept losing contact lenses and needed something over his eyes, and also something to soak up the sweat. Shades and a ball cap worked just fine—and a look was born.
"Over time, it got to be like an athlete putting on a uniform, and almost not the same show if I didn't have them on," said Church, who graduated in 2000 with a degree in business. "I'm always who I am, but when those go on, it's showtime. It's a good way to focus."
Church hadn't yet hit on The Look when he was at Appalachian in the late '90s, although he was already well into the live-show slog. By the time he was a junior, Church was playing five nights a week and not sleeping much.
"There were a lot of nights when I'd be driving up the mountain at 4 a.m. when I had an 8 o'clock class," he says. "I remember writing papers and homework at the 24-hour Waffle House on (Hwy.) 321 in Lenoir, then coming into class with hash brown and ketchup stains on the paper. I'd still not been to bed, and the professors knew what I was doing. It about killed me, but it's fun to look back on now."
Church went to Nashville after graduation and had some country-chart success before exploding as one of the genre's biggest crossover stars in 2012. He won the Country Music Association's Album of the Year award for his 2011 release "Chief," which also made year-end lists from the alternative-rock magazine Spin (which called Church "hard to love and absolutely worth the effort") and National Public Radio while picking up two Grammy nominations.
Truly, Church has become the cool country guy for rockers to like. The heavy-metal band Metallica invited him to play its Orion Music + More Festival last summer. And after hearing Church's "Springsteen," Bruce Springsteen sent a fan letter.
"He said he's a big fan, so is his family, congratulations, hope we cross paths, things like that," Church says. "Now THAT was amazing, because I never thought a guy like that would even know I'm alive. It kind of sums up the year we've had, almost surreal."