Eric Church has been grouped into a movement of country singers with outlaw instincts and pop smarts, best exemplified by Jamey Johnson and his terrific 2010 chart-topper The Guitar Song. But where Johnson follows the example of Waylon Jennings, a hard-living romantic who embodied outlaw mythology as well as its inherent loneliness and fatalism, Church models himself after Hank Williams, Jr., playing good-time Southern rock and preferring to chase the blues away rather than revel in them. “No need to complicate it, I’m a simple man, all you gotta do is put a drink in my hand,” Church sings early on his rollicking third album, Chief. What follows are simple songs about uncomplicated subjects: Jack Daniels, Jesus, and “preaching from the book of Johnny Cash.”
Church isn’t mining startlingly original subject matter on Chief, but he does it better than many of his contemporaries, due to his songwriting acumen (he co-wrote every track on Chief) and his way of underplaying the material. Chief is a party record, but “Drink In My Hand” and “Country Music Jesus” are thankfully free of good-ol’-boy bluster, as Church confidently (and correctly) assumes that his warm vocals and pleasingly ragged backing band (by Nashville standards, anyway) will do the work for him. Church is just as effective on slower, more thoughtful songs like “Springsteen,” which tips a cap to the Boss while reflecting on music’s power to revive forgotten emotions from the past. Chief is a record made for Saturday night, but it’s worth playing on Sunday morning, too.