Eric Church is the first country star to fully incorporate hip hop into country hits. He's not the first to incorporate it, of course. "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy," and "Stuck Like Glue" -- that glitterbomb Sugarland single with the Carribean patois breakdown -- all dip into hip hop beats.
But they're self-conscious, like kids trying on outlandish Halloween costumers: the audacity is part of the joke. Church, though, doesn't just download a beat and hope for pop crossover. His songs seem to rise up from their breakbeats, as surely as they might rise from their riffs.
This is a sea-change for Nashville: Looped, loud, and complex drum patterns are no longer a novelty. They are instead a widely accepted element of that great sonic storehouse that this conservative genre depends upon: Sounds That Most American White People Are Cool With.
His single "Smoke a Little Smoke" opens with traditional snaky country-rock warm-up riffs, the kind Jerry Reed might play over footage of some good 'ol boy ambling into the meanest pool hall in Asskick County. But these riffs are diced up, chopped into near abstractions, sequenced over a sturdy kick drum rock stomp that, after a verse, flowers into full-on breakbeat.
A simple breakbeat, more G. Love than Ghostface, but still full-on: all kick and snare, part clap-along arena rock and part "Funky Drummer." It's a live-in-the-studio loop that fuels Church's offhand verses as surely as the dusty riffs and plodding bass did "Waymore's Blues" and other ninety-proof Waylon Jennings tracks. (If you haven't heard "Waymore's Blues," please please please play this next clip.)
Like "Waymore's Blues," "Smoke a Little Smoke" is conservative outlaw doggerel, an ode to both country values and to rock bad boyism. It's pro-pot, anti-Obama, dumb as hell, and all kinds of great. But both songs are about something far more important than those words: The band performance, the way the singer locks into a rhythm section that's really feeling it, something you almost never hear in modern country, where studio hands play as polite as Broadway pit bands.
Like much rock and hip hop, what matters most in both is that beat itself.
Chruch's recent album Chief, which follows "Smoke a Little Smoke," takes this further. Its best tracks are based on the same kind of skittering beats, a rhythmic trick that fits Church's tunes as well as Waylon's old one-two thump fit his.
Key track "Jack Daniels" is another Nashville rarity: A propulsive front-porch drinkin' song that's four-square traditional yet also rhythmically innovative, one that advances the genre rather than just mines it.
Less conventional is "I'm Getting Stoned," which sounds like a country hit remixed by big fans of Soul Coughing.
Chief stands as one of 2011's best records, in its genre or out of it. Church's singing is a bit pinched, and he can't summon up the deep feeling of the best of his genre. But the songs - like Church himself - have wit and a brawling charisma, especially "Drink in My Hand," the best Nashville Stones rip since Jamey Johnson's "Playing the Part," "Creepin,"a balls-and-banjos rocker distinguished by some sequencer horseplay, and "Springsteen," a tribute to Bruce's hayday that -- like all such from Music Row -- labors to avoid Bruce's politics.
I'm less taken with the two goofball but not-bad Jesus numbers, "Country Music Jesus" and "Like Jesus Does," mostly because I can't work out what the hell they're supposed to mean. "She loves me like Jesus does," he sings, which is sweet and all, but should you really base your romantic relationships on the example of a fellow who died a virgin?
And his recent hit "Homeboy," a surprising and emotional bit of hard-times moralizing, is cheapened by some coded language suggesting that white folks should honor white ways of behaving.
Dressing down a small-town criminal, Church singles out a "hip hop hat" and jeans that hang too low -- a disheartening complaint from a guy who relies on breakbeats. That song is the least hip hop on the record: Instead, it swells up into strings-and-guitar-solos Britpop a la the Verve.
It's also more musically satisfying than anything rock radio has come up with in forever. Better still, it's testament to the impressive size of that ever-growing category: Sounds That Most American White People Are Cool With.