John Peets
August 15, 2016 at 05:02 PM EDT

After a season of botched surprise releases, Eric Church did what no other star could in 2015: he dropped an album without even the slightest of hints. Mr. Misunderstood, one of EW’s best country records of the year, arrived the morning of the CMA awards broadcast when members of his fan club, the Church Choir, woke up to physical copies in their mailboxes. Everyone else had to wait until the award show ended, when the set appeared on iTunes.

In the months since release, Church has avoided press and is only playing a handful of dates this summer. Instead, he’s letting fans be the mouthpiece of the album. “We think about our main core of fans first,” the 39-year-old tells EW. “It’s been invaluable, letting them have that sense of ownership — they had more ownership than anyone in this process.” A major tour in support of the record won’t launch until 2017.

Now that the set’s second single, “Record Year,” just earned Church his fifth No. 1 country single, he’s giving one of his first interviews since the album dropped. Here, the superstar looks back on his decade long career and chats recording in secret, what he thinks is most “ass backwards” about the music industry, how even his kids are itching to hit the road.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: “Record Year” just became your fifth No. 1 on the country charts. Can you take us back to writing the song?

ERIC CHURCH: My co-writer Jeff Hyde had the idea. I could not believe that the idea had not been written that way. I was shocked to find out that it hadn’t been done. And then we just started talking about about those records that have kind of help me get over things and it just appealed to me. We sat down and started writing and it just fell out.

There’s a wonderful duality to the track in that you are paying homage to some of the records that shaped you — Stevie Wonder, James Brown, New Grass Revival, Hank Williams — but you’re also providing a road map to fans for music that has been out of the mainstream music news cycle for a while.

New Grass Revival was one of my favorite bands growing up, but I’m not sure a lot of people or kids even know who that is. [Laughs] They’re definitely somebody to check out.

You seem to buoy between songs that go No. 1 and songs that hover around the back half of the chart when it comes to singles. Are you just taking turns between appeasing radio and highlighting favorite deep cuts or is there an alternate guiding force?

I don’t make a lot of decisions based on radio. When we look at an album, I just look at the songs that are important to me, that I want to shed some light on. A great example is “Mr. Misunderstood” [which peaked at No. 15 on the country airplay charts]. It came in at about five minutes long, and I knew it was going to be a bit of a challenge with what radio uses and what works within the confines of programming. But it was important to me, it was an important statement. So we went and did it.

We’ve done that with a number of songs. And what’s funny is that some of them have been our biggest songs. “Smoke A Little Smoke” [off 2009’s Carolina] was a big song for us and didn’t do great at radio. “Two Pink Lines” [off 2006’s Sinners Like Me] was interesting at radio. “Homeboy” is still very important to our career and it was like Top 20. [Off 2011’s Chief, the song peaked at No. 13.] So I don’t look at it in terms of radio. It’s a personal thing for me. So I’m generally the one you can blame or congratulate. [Laughs]

A lot of money gets thrown into promoting singles. Is your label fine letting you have final say?

You know, here’s what I think about that: The label, at least with Capitol [Records Nashville, under the Universal Music Group umbrella] and Mike Dungan, they trusted me early on and it paid off. They know that I know my fans better than they do and they let me make the decisions.

Those songs you mentioned that were maybe lukewarm at radio, like “Smoke A Little Smoke” and “Homeboy,” are enormously important in your live set.

We’ve got probably 10 songs that if we don’t play, people will kill us—and out of those, two of them are No.1’s. I can drop a couple No.1’s in a set, but if I don’t play “These Boots” they’re mad.

Mr. Misunderstood arrived last November with absolutely no warning. Why was it done in such secrecy?

I wrote the record in 18-20 days, but I wasn’t real sure what I had. I wanted to do it with just myself and the band. I wanted to see if we could cut it the way I saw it in my head. So I called my producer and said, “I want to come in for a day, I want to cut this song.” We got to the end of day one and he looked at me and said, “You got anything else?” [Laughs] So we went from “Mr. Misunderstood” to “Kill A Word” and then to “Knives of New Orleans.” Ten days later the album was done. It just fell out. I even knew the sequencing of the damn thing. For whatever reason, the cosmic portal opened up and there it was.

You’ve become a poster boy in Nashville for doing things your own way. Does that seem fair?

We tried the Nashville game. And the two songs in my career that I’d like to have back are “Love Your Love the Most” and “Hell On The Heart.” [Both off Carolina.] Those were both Top 10 radio songs — they were what the label said we needed — and they did nothing for my career. It was “Smoke A Little Smoke,” which was my call, when things started changing. So I’ve just learned to trust my gut and trust that it’s going to be okay.

It’s playing the long game, in many ways. 

When you say playing the long game people laugh, but honestly we shot a video for “Sinners Like Me” 10 years ago and it just came out. [Laughs] I remember when we shot it we had no traction with that song and everybody wanted us to move on. I remember saying to my manager, “You know what we’re going to do? On the 10-year anniversary, we’re going to put this out.” And it was kind of a joke, but we put it in the vault and to the day, 10 years later we put it out. We thought that far down the line.

Once you decided to release Mr. Misunderstood as a surprise, you had to purchase a record plant in Germany to pull it off. How did that scheme develop?

We wanted to give away 80,000 copies away, CD and vinyl. Vinyl is hard to re-produce, there are only so many plants and we were in the fourth quarter. So my manager had a line on one in Germany that was up for sale and we said, okay we’ll get everything done there—plus we get to the front of the line if we own it. [Laughs] That’s why it stayed such a secret.

What was the most rewarding part of this release style?

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 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 its the fans. I think that’s so ass backwards. So we went to the fans first.

I remember when I was younger and I had a song or a record that turned me on and you had to drive around to every store to try and find who had a copy of it! I can remember pulling up and it not being at one or it not being at two — and when you finally get your hands on it, you couldn’t get to the car fast enough. That’s the feeling we were trying to simulate.

You’re not touring until 2017, which means fans will have had the music for almost a year and a half before they get to see it.

Well, we just didn’t have a tour planned. So we’re just playing the long game, this record is going to go seven or eight singes. We’re on two.

So fans shouldn’t expect more new music before that trek launches?

No. And I can tell you, I didn’t plan this one. I’m normally a guy that has to go looking for an album, I have to write 100 songs to find it. I wouldn’t anticipate anything like this happening again. I think that’s why, when its all said and done, this will be such an important record for us; the bridge between the first part of our career and wherever we go from here.

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