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Dream job

After leaving easier road behind, Church finds success in country music

Everyone has dreams, everyone has made compromises and everyone wonders what their lives would have been like if they’d chased more of the former and settled for less of the latter.

Years ago, country singer Eric Church, who performs Saturday at Memorial Coliseum, was at a crossroads.

He had a choice of two paths and almost everyone in his life was urging him down the straighter and flatter one.

Church was graduating from college with a degree in marketing, he was engaged and his fiancée’s father was encouraging him to downplay his musical aspirations in favor of something more practical: selling furniture.

Church decided to move to Nashville instead.

“She knew I wasn’t going to be happy if I didn’t give it a shot,” Church says of his fiancée. “She just wasn’t going to come with me.

“I think everybody expected me to fall on my face and come crawling back,” he says. “That gave me a powerful resolve because I’d be damned if I was going to come back after failing. It steels you, this idea that you can’t crawl back.”

The choice of music over furniture may not have required much deliberation, but Church says that for him it all came down to one realization.

“Whatever job I took, I knew I’d be coming home after work and playing guitar,” he says. “As a musician and songwriter, you don’t come home and sell furniture in your spare time.”

Of course, Church – like a lot of young country musicians – couldn’t have known how unprepared he was for Nashville until he moved to Nashville.

“I got here and ... (expletive),” he says. “I was a little overwhelmed. The best thing I had going for me was that I was young – 22 years old, 23 years old.

“I had this feeling of invincibility,” Church says. “I was going to conquer the world. If I had been a few years older, I probably would have went back home.

“An overwhelming amount of talent comes to Nashville, and I was way below the game,” he says.

Church spent every night in the sort of clubs that showcase and cater to unsung singer-songwriters.

“It became almost a classroom for me,” he says. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep. It was not the most healthy lifestyle. But the way I saw it, I was sharpening pencils for when the time came to write songs.”

Even after Church was signed to Capitol Nashville in 2006, the struggles continued.

His first record, “Sinners Like Me,” was an underperformer, and then Church got himself and his band fired from a Rascal Flatts tour after he got into an argument with the tour manager.

“I was just young,” he says. “Full of piss and vinegar. I didn’t think we were being treated fairly.

“I stood up for myself, and I stood up for my guys,” Church says. “Maybe I stood up higher than anyone had stood up before.”

Church says he and his band earned a bad reputation in Nashville thereafter, the sort of bad reputation that spin doctors can’t spin.

“Nobody would touch us,” he says. “We were branded as troublemakers.

“We couldn’t even play in the country music venues in town,” Church says. “We had to play at heavy-metal places.”

But that turning point helped Church and his band find their audience and find their sound, he says.

Church says he started playing an ode to booze and marijuana in concert called “Smoke a Little Smoke.”

In the context of today’s sanitized and corporatized country radio climate, “Smoke a Little Smoke” is almost a novelty tune that some programmers probably assumed initially was more suitable for the Dr. Demento’s show than for drive time.

“I didn’t think it had a chance in hell (of being played on the radio),” Church says. “A snowball’s chance.”

But the song killed in concert, so much so that Church had to move it permanently to the end of the set.

“They’d tear the place down when they heard it,” he says. “That was the last time till now that the song wasn’t an encore. Because I could never recover after that. The worst show I ever did was the one I did just before I gained the good sense to make that song my encore. Because I could never get them back to that level.”

Church says the song was placed on his second album, “Carolina,” with the general thinking being that it would and should stay as hidden as possible.

But when it came time to release a third single from “Carolina” to radio stations, Church insisted on “Smoke a Little Smoke.”

“The label thought I was crazy, management thought I was crazy,” he says. “But I was starting to feel the reckless abandon that made (the third album) ‘Chief’ possible. I felt a little bit bulletproof.”

“Smoke a Little Smoke” became a top 20 hit, and Church says he used it as a template for making the fierce and iconoclastic “Chief.”

Thanks to “Chief,” Church is now a monster country music star.

Church says the success of “Chief” restored his faith in music.

“I don’t tweet,” he says. “I have never been on a Facebook page. There are all these things that make us dinosaurs, things that have made people in the industry say, ‘Well, it’s never going to work then.’

“The way we did it proved a principle,” Church says. “It’s about the songs.”

If you go

Who: Eric Church
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Coliseum, 4000 Parnell Ave.
Admission: Tickets, from $32.75 to $40.50, are available at all Ticketmaster outlets and charge by phone, 1-800-745-3000.

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