By Whitney Pastorek
May 10, 2007 at 07:33 PM EDT

Somewhat apropos of nothing, PopWatchers, I bring you this Q&A with Eric Church, one of the participants in last weekend’s Stagecoach festival. He was nice enough to sit down with me for a chat, and, well, he’s just so damn charming in a scruffy sort of way that I couldn’t help but post it. Hope you’ll indulge me for a bit. I’m kind of missing the desert. Perhaps it’s SPF withdrawal.

Anyway, as part of what he calls the “new crop” of country stars, Church has a fresh perspective on what the Nashville sound can and should be, and, along with cohorts like Dierks Bentley, Jason Aldean, and our girl Miranda (no, we’re not going to stop bringing her up), he’s finding ways to reshape a very traditional genre for his generation. His debut album, Sinners Like Me, is a little bit country, but just ever so slightly more rock ‘n’ roll — and one very non-hickish music critic I know put it in his 2006 top 10. Clearly, the guy’s doing something right. So pull up a chair, why don’tcha? Imagine him with one very sunburned arm, and me relishing the brief shade from the table’s umbrella. Both of us are wearing sunglasses throughout the conversation, which is rude, but we value our eyesight. And for some reason, Eric is very, very nervous about the boots he’s wearing…

addCredit(“Eric Church: Whitney Pastorek“)

Entertainment Weekly: So, welcome to Stagecoach.
Eric Church: I think this is cool. I grew up in North Carolina, around the MerleFest festival. And the thing I love about Merlefest is the variety of music. It’s like here — you have the bluegrass, the folk, the mainstage, you have some blues, you have some singer-songwriters. It’s cool.

EW: How old were you when you headed off to Nashville?
EC: I think I’d just turned 23. And now I just turned 30.

EW: But you went to Appalachian State University — did you study music in college?
EC: I didn’t, other than in the bars. We were playing four, five nights a week up there. So I ended up graduating, but my main education was music. I learned how to work a crowd, learned how to play a hundred drunk people on Friday nights.

EW: Did you go to college because you wanted something to fall back on? Did your parents make you go?
EC: I went to my dad when I was 17 and said, “I want to be a country music star.” Which every dad loves to hear. And he said, “I want you to go to college.” So we had a discussion. And I’m pretty stubborn. I’m a lot like him. And he said, “If you go to college and graduate, I’ll pay your first six months of rent in Nashville.” So he bribed me. And he was true to his word.

EW: Now that you’re out on the road, is it harder to keep your songwriting up?
EC: I think it’s easier. Because there’s more opportunities to view stuff, and songs are everywhere. The key to songwriting is just to be able to observe, and put yourself in situations to be around people, and let those ideas come to you. We’re in bars and clubs every night. So it’s easy to look out and go, “There’s a song.”

EW: Who are your peers, at this point, in the industry?
EC: I’ve got a lot of them. Brad Paisley and I are good friends. Dierks Bentley — we get along pretty well. I knew Dierks before he had a record deal, and we’ve gotten really close, just being out touring together. A lot of the new guys — I think the whole new crop — we kinda came up together, and we’re in the same boat. We sit together at awards shows.

EW: I’m fascinated by this new crop, as you call it. You’re sort of reinventing what country music is allowed to be.
EC: Totally. Yeah. We’re pushing the envelope. Which I think is great for the industry. I think right now, you’ve seen these artists pop up over the last decade who’ve flirted with branching together a lot of different kinds of music. Some of them have been huge, and sold millions of records. And I think over time it’s become a little bit of what the industry can be. And country music right now, there’s no bigger umbrella. We’ve got Bon Jovi. Which for me is good, because the farther you can go on the right, the farther you can go on the left. You’ve got a guy like me, but you can also push it more on the traditional side.

EW: And you’re pushing it towards rock ‘n’ roll?
EC: I’m pushing it more towards rock, sure, but it’s just towards a new sound. I can’t do Alan Jackson music any better than Alan Jackson. Can’t do it. I’m not gonna beat him. I’m not gonna beat George Strait at George Strait. I’m not gonna beat Tim McGraw at Tim McGraw. I’m just trying to identify kind of what my sound is, and I feel like I’ve done that. The most important thing for me as an artist is having an identity.

EW: Tell me, for those who are uninitiated, about your identity.
EC: Basically, it’s where most people go right, I go left. I used a producer that had never produced a country record. Most country artists get together in a big studio with all these high-paid musicians. We did this record in a basement with a bunch of musicians I play with all the time. And the reason we did it that way is that the records that I love are those old records back in the ’70s — the Rolling Stones, The Band, records like that. They were made because they were allowed to be creative. Nobody was getting paid on a clock, everybody was sitting around making music for the sake of making music. And you can feel that energy. That’s what we tried to do. In my opinion, the record is alive. There’s not three songs on it that are your hit singles, and the rest of them are filler. There’s actually a story there.

EW: You’re sitting here in a baseball cap. Now, are you gonna put a cowboy hat on when you go out on stage?
EC: Ha-ha. I’m not a cowboy. I couldn’t pull it off. I’d probably look like an idiot. I’m just not that guy.

EW: And what’s with the motorcycle boots?
EC: There’s a story here. The boots that I always wear — there’s a song on my record called “These Boots,” about a pair I’ve had for 15 years — they’re my favorite boots. They’re cowboy boots. And they’re in the shop right now. And I feel weird. I feel a little bit like the security blanket is gone. I’ve never walked on stage without those boots. I mean, Opry, Madison Square Garden — any show I’ve done, I’ve had those boots on. And the last two weeks I’ve been without them. So it’s kind of boots by rotation right now.

EW: Do you want to borrow my flip-flops and see how they work?
EC: At this point in time, sure. I just feel naked up there.

EW: Why did you take ‘em in while you were on the road?
EC: I didn’t have a choice. They had to go in. And I thought it would be a quick job. I have a nice guy from Pakistan who fixes my boots. And I took the boots in, and he’s embarrassed by me anyway, cause they’re old ratty boots, and he’s very proud of his work. When other people are in line with me, he’ll bring their boots out, and they’re all shiny and polished. Mine come out in a bag, and he’ll go, “You go now.” So I took ‘em in, and first he thought he couldn’t fix ‘em. I took him a record and said, You don’t understand. These boots.

EW: So they’re like the Willie Nelson’s guitar of boots.
EC: Exactly. I don’t care what it takes, or how much money it costs. These boots are gonna stay on my feet.