He rose to fame as a rebel, but it would be hard to find a guy more beloved by the country music establishment than Eric Church.
On the strength of his 2011 CD, "Chief" -- which spawned the hits "Drink in My Hand," "Creepin" and "Springsteen" -- Church is headed to Bakersfield on Tuesday with his "Blood, Sweat & Tears" tour and leads the field at tonight's County Music Association Awards, with five nominations.
"It's surreal, because it's not something I saw coming," said Church during a recent phone interview. "I knew 'Chief' had been a special record, I knew 'Springsteen' was a monster of a song, but I didn't see being most nominated. Neither did anybody else, so don't let anyone kid you. I think it's better that way because there's no expectations for me.
"It's pretty cool for the industry, because at times I felt like I didn't know where we belonged. I thought we were too rock for country, I thought we were too country for rock, I didn't know if we had a home. So, for them to kind of open their arms and say, 'You're one of us' is the biggest thing I took from being nominated."
That affirmation is all the more sweet, Church said, considering that he got his start not as a pretty-boy Nashville creation, but as a honky-tonk hero, grinding it out night after night in one sweaty barroom after another. Church, 35, broke out of a pack of fellow rowdy country rockers like Jamey Johnson, starting talk of a new generation of outlaws, the heirs of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
Just don't call Church an outlaw to his face.
"I hate labels. It seems like we could come up with a different word. 'Outlaw' is a word that was issued 30, 40 years ago, and I think there's a different theme now. I mean, yeah, our paths have been somewhat similar as artists from way back. Maybe finding some success outside of the normal parameters where people find success, yeah, I get it. I'm just not big on calling it this or that, and certainly not going back to a word 30 or 40 years."
Not big on country music's penchant for hype, the North Carolina native prefers to keep his material and stage show about the purity of a rowdy good time.
"A lot of times in my career, especially from where we came from, it wasn't busy. I'm just taking it in stride. It's pretty simple for me now. You gotta keep it about the music, and about the shows you gotta play. Let the rest of the noise be noise."
Speaking of noise, Church was invited to turn it up to eardrum-shattering levels this year when he was tapped to open for Metallica at the group's Orion Music and More festival in Atlantic City. Though he cut his teeth performing at biker bars, Church -- the only country singer handpicked by the metal gods for the show -- admitted to some nerves.
"I was scared to death because I've been to Metallica shows and seen the audience turn their back on the opening acts. (Metallica guitarist) James Hetfield walked out and introduced us, and that certainly helped, but it's one of those things. Their fan base didn't really know who we were. It took a little bit to breakdown, 'Who is this guy?' I even said, 'You don't know me, and I don't really know you, but I promise we come from the same background, and we listen to the same music. I played my song, 'Jack Daniels Kicked My (expletive) Again Last Night,' and it all started to change. By the end of the set, it ended up being one of the best crowds we've had. And I love it, because it really was on the backs of the music at that point in time. It wasn't about who was communicating the message or where it came from. It was about the songs, and I think that's what the festival was about, and certainly one of the highlights of my career."
Like that fateful night with Metallica, Church hopes tonight's CMA appearance will make a similar impact, as well as his Bakersfield show, which happens to fall on Election Night.
"If I win five awards, I'm gonna make the same record and play the same in-your-face show if we win 0 when I go to Bakersfield. In all my years, I've never played on Election Night. I'm not big into politics -- just a lot of people talkin' and yellin' at me." 46th Annual CMA Awards
8 tonight, KERO-TV, Channel 23 (ABC)