Before 2006, there was no Eric Church in country music. Take a listen to 2006's Sinners Like Me, however, and it's hard to imagine the genre without him.
Church was Church from the very beginning. Even on his debut album, he wrote or co-wrote every song, swinging between rockin' anthems and straightforward country melodies. Each song on Sinners Like Me is a clear-eyed, honest look at everything from hard work to small towns, being stubborn to learning from experience, heartache to drinking plenty of beer. As always, the melodies are tight and the musicality and instrumentation are a level ahead of everyone else.
How do the songs on Sinners Like Me stack up against each other? Read on to find out:
In “The Hard Way,” Church ponders the many lessons he’s had to learn, some the easy way, and some -- you guessed it -- the hard way. It’s a somber, simple song that’s comfortable sitting in hard truths: If he hadn’t raced his car down that back road, he wouldn’t have burnt up his Mustang, and his friend wouldn’t have been hurt. If he had stopped to tell his dad he loved him, he wouldn’t feel the regret he does now. It’s less of a “live life with no regrets” anthem and more of a plea with the listener to consider the toll those regrets might take.
“What I Almost Was” is a nostalgic song about being a teenager in the heartland of America: “It was my senior year / I had just turned 18 / I was a Friday-night hero / With Division I dreams.” While the story is about disappointment and dreams shifting in an instant, the song is anything but sad; instead, it’s an upbeat, hopeful song with the thesis “I thank God I ain’t what I almost was.”
The rock-oriented “Can’t Take It With You” takes a simple premise -- the common idea that you “can’t take it with you when you go” -- and spins it out into something bigger. In “Can’t Take It With You,” the idea isn’t just that you can’t take material possessions with you when you die; it’s Church practically shaking his head, bemoaning the fact that the woman he loved took everything he had, leaving “no cats, no bed, no heirloom antique table” in her wake. As he realizes that she took everything, up to and including his heart, he asks, “Who says you can’t take it with you?”
The opening track on a debut album is a big deal: In a way, it helps define a new artist. And “Before She Does” make quite a statement, an electric guitar-fueled, driving rock-meets-country song that features Church rattling off everything he believes about everything, from big ideas (“I believe the Bible is cold, hard fact”) to small ones (“I believe dogs are better than cats”). From the beginning, Church made clear who he was and what he was about -- and what this song is about all culminates in one line: “I believe Jesus is coming back ‘fore she does.”
“Livin’ Part of Life” is the closing song on Sinners Like Me, and it does what a great closing song should: It wraps up the album and leaves the listener wanting just a little bit more. Warm, cheerful and energetic from the opening “One, two, yeah, one, two, three,” it’s buoyed by a catchy melody, gang vocals and a whole mess of fiddles and strings … and when you hit the chorus, it’s just about impossible not to sing along.
If you’ve ever attended an Eric Church show, chances are pretty good that you’ve heard “These Boots.” It’s a concert staple these days, during which, instead of lighters, concertgoers raise a boot in the air. The song, which frames the narrator’s life by remembering important moments he’s experienced in his broken-in and well-loved boots, has become more and more beloved every year, and is now a classic Church song.
"Guys Like Me” is simple: It’s a celebration of “guys like me” -- in other words, according to Church, a celebration of the average guy who is lucky enough to be loved by an above-average person. As far as popularity, though, “Guys Like Me” was above average: It was the third single from Sinners Like Me, and that album’s second-best Billboard Hot Country Songs chart performer (it peaked at No. 17).
If you like “Guys Like Me,” then you’ll probably love “Sinners Like Me.” Its chart performance was modest (it peaked at No. 51), but the album’s title track shines beyond its Billboard showing.
“Sinners Like Me” is, as the title indicates, a musical celebration of imperfect people. Its catchy melody means that you’ll probably be humming the chorus (sung by Church and guest vocalist Mindy Smith) for a long time, which is especially impressive since the chorus has very few actual words. Still, there’s a good chance that, later today, you’ll find yourself singing, “La de dah de dah / Le de dah dah de de / I come from a long line of sinners like me.”
"Pledge Allegiance to the Hag"
“Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” is a killer title. The only thing that would make it more impressive would be if Church got, say, Merle Haggard to jump on the song with him. And, of course, that’s exactly what happened.
"Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” is the perfect rebuttal for anyone who's ever tempted to accuse Church of being too rock and not enough country. It's the kind of song that can only be written and performed by someone who knows and loves classic country music. And that’s why we “tip our hats / And raise our glasses of cold, cold beer” to Church, Haggard and this song.
The energetic, drum-driven intro to “Two Pink Lines” sounds different than the beginnings of other songs on this album, but that’s just one of the ways this track distinguishes itself as a standout on Sinners Like Me. As the title indicates, "Two Pink Lines" is about two teenagers dealing with the moment they realize that “six weeks in, she was three weeks late.” The song is tender, empathetic, stressful and even, at times, funny. Musically and lyrically, it dodges expectations, and makes for a surprising, enjoyable listen that doesn’t end in the way you anticipate.
“I like my country rocking, how ’bout you?” Church sings on “How ‘Bout You,” his first-ever single from his first-ever album. What better introduction to the future superstar could there be? “How ‘Bout You” hit No. 14 on the Billboard charts, and was the album’s best-performing single. As far as introductions go, the rest of the song remains a perfect country-rock song driven by clear-headed lyrics that celebrate hard work and small towns. Again: What better introduction to Church could there be?
It’s a compliment, not an insult, to say that “Lightning” sounds the least like anything else on Sinners Like Me, and that it’s still the best song on the album. “Lightning” is quiet, absent of electric guitars and loud drums, and is decidedly more country than rock. It was never released as a single, and Church rarely plays it at concerts, but it’s still a straightforward stunner. If anything, it’s a testament to Church’s range, and a hint at all the places his music would go in the future. And as Church tells CMT, it “ended up probably being the song that got me my publishing deal, and it’s the song that got me my record deal.”