Eric Church has always been one to do things his own way.
His 2014 album The Outsiders showed off a harder, more rock-leaning side of Church than fans had grown used to from his first three albums, and left everybody wondering whether that was the direction Chief would be going in on future projects.
But we didn’t have to wait long to find out.
On November 3, 2015, members of Eric’s fan club, the Church Choir, woke up to a surprise in their mailbox: A new, unannounced Eric Church album called Mr. Misunderstood.
There was no explanation, no promotion, no buildup on social media or press release from his label.
Just new music, sent directly to his fans.
In fact, Church didn’t even let the media know that he was releasing a new album: They found out when fans (and Whiskey Riff) started posting about it on social media.
It turns out there were only seven people who knew that the album was coming out – and one of them was John Osborne from Brothers Osborne, who accidentally came by the studio while Church and his band were recording the album, forcing Church’s manager to spill the beans to protect the secrecy of the project.
The president of Church’s label only found out about the album a week before it was sent out – and only because Church and his team were talking to retailers.
And he even went as far as to buy a vinyl record pressing plant in Germany so people didn’t find out about the album.
But the label president said, ‘You’ve earned the right to do this. It’s not how I’d release an Eric Church record, but if that’s what you want to do, we’ll do it.'”
He also later explained his thought process behind the surprise album release – and why he wanted his fans to hear it first:
“If you want to know where the music industry is broken it’s this: When we’re going to put out an album, the people we’re trying to get it in the hands of are the fans, but the fans are also the last people [who] have a chance at it.
It goes to a label, then the press, then radio and critics — all these people weigh in and get a copy and then it’s the fans. I think that’s so ass backwards. So we went to the fans first.”
According to Church, he had set out trying to write songs for a duets album. But when the music led him in a different direction, he followed along and ended up writing and recording the entire album over the span of 40 days in late summer 2015.
And 30 days after the album was recorded, it showed up in fans’ mailboxes.
The first time Church even publicly acknowledged the new album was during a press conference at the 2015 CMA Awards the night after it was delivered to his fan club. At the awards show, he performed the title track and sent 14-year old McKinley James (who’s also on the cover of the album) to deliver a message to the media:
“My name is McKinley James. I’m 14 years old and from Webster, New York. I’m one of 80,000 that Eric Church gave his new record to today.
He decided to treat us as one, as music fans. The record is called ‘Mr. Misunderstood.’ It’s out now. I brought you your copies, and yes, I am on the cover. Thank you.”
The result of the entire process was an album that I still believe is the best of Eric Church’s career. It showed a maturation and growth in his songwriting, one that’s you can follow along with if you start with Church’s first album and listen to them from the beginning.
There are also a few of those duets that he set out to write: There was “Kill a Word,” which Church recorded with Rhiannon Giddens, and “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” with Susan Tedeschi.
But then there were songs like the title track, about marching to the beat of your own drum even when nobody understands. And “Record Year,” still one of Church’s biggest hits, about the power of music to get you through a heartbreak.
And of course there was one of my favorite Church songs of all time, the haunting and mysterious “Knives of New Orleans.”
It was the perfect unconventional record to drop in such an unconventional way – and he did it all so his fans could experience his music first.