When Eric Church headlines the first night of this weekend's Stagecoach Country Music Festival on Friday, he's likely to showcase the songs that have made him Nashville's foremost rabble-rouser.
He'll sing "These Boots," about all the trouble he's gotten into while wearing his favorite pair. He'll do "Drink in My Hand," in which he tells his boss what to do with that threatened overtime.
And he'll definitely haul out "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag," his decade-old tribute to an earlier country agitator, Merle Haggard, whose death this month is certain to serve as a throughline at Stagecoach. The annual festival — with an expansive lineup that also features Carrie Underwood, Sam Hunt and Chris Stapleton — is set to run Friday to Sunday at Indio's Empire Polo Club (where Coachella just wrapped up last weekend).
But in addition to the tough-talking oldies, Church will have some newer, more reflective tunes in his back pocket, including the small-town ode "Round Here Buzz" and "Three Year Old," which finds this self-styled insurgent proclaiming that "nothing turns a day around like licking a mixing bowl."
"It's obviously inviting a ton of criticism," Church, 38, said recently of the latter song, a partial accounting of everything he's learned from his two young sons. "People are going to say, 'He's gone soft.' But I don't care — it's honest."
The new music comes from "Mr. Misunderstood," a 10-track album the singer released in November in a kind of old-school riff on the surprise digital attack that Beyoncé and others have deployed over the last few years. Without warning, he mailed copies, some on vinyl, to members of his fan club, then let them spread the word about the record before he performed the title track at last year's Country Music Assn. Awards.
As befits its unorthodox delivery, "Mr. Misunderstood" (now available in all the usual ways) shows a different side of this North Carolina native. The album has deeply felt heartbreak songs like "Record Year" and "Mixed Drinks About Feelings," a gorgeous slow-burn duet with Susan Tedeschi. And there's more folk, blues and gospel than the swaggering Southern rock for which Church is known; "Kill a Word," for instance, features vocals from Rhiannon Giddens of the scholarly string band Carolina Chocolate Drops.
But if the album emphasizes Church's vulnerability, it also indicates his position as a country act sufficiently established to take just this type of left turn.
"I couldn't have done this on the 'Carolina' album," he acknowledged, referring to his second studio record, which came out in 2009, well before he started scooping up trophies from the CMA and the Academy of Country Music. Broadening his emotional register on "Mr. Misunderstood" — and issuing the album as he did — was a way to put his superstar capital to use, he said.
Not that he had it all sketched out in advance. Church said the songs on the album came to him quickly and unexpectedly, not long after he'd returned home following a lengthy tour behind his previous album, 2014's "The Outsiders."
"I'd never experienced that before," he said. "Normally when I write, I write athletically; I'll do lots of songs, then find the record within them. This time I wasn't even planning to write." He chuckled. "Nobody was more surprised by it than me."
One theme he was drawn to was the happy acceptance of growing older, an idea he crystallizes in "Holdin' My Own," in which "a scrapper" who's "used up some luck and lawyers" imagines hanging it all up one day to be at home with his family.
"The thing that irks me most about country music — or just music in general — is you have so many people that try to be younger as they age," he said. "They think that's what their fan base is: youth. And it's so disingenuous. I'm not 20 anymore, and I'm not going to pretend to be. Maturity is important for an artist."
"Three Year Old" grew out of a fishing trip with one of his sons, which he said went just as he describes it in the song: First, the kid threw the fishing pole in the water; then he threw the tackle box in. (Church was surprised to discover that the pole sunk faster.)
"But the real essence of the song is the line 'When you're wrong, you should just say so,' " the singer said. "That's a deep thing for someone to come to that understanding — and that's what actually makes it not a soft song."
Church said he was in the studio recording "Mr. Misunderstood" within 20 days of writing the first song.
"Ten days later, we had an album," he said.
The speed with which he knocked it out convinced him he couldn't wait the six to eight months that would've been required for a conventional rollout.
"I wanted the songs consumed the same way they arrived to me," he said.
So he and his team developed the fan-club idea; they even turned to a pressing plant in Germany when none in the U.S. could make the vinyl records fast enough.
The hasty release — and limited promotional campaign — has meant that the music hasn't made as big a splash as Church's earlier stuff. But there's time, he said: He's not even launching his official "Mr. Misunderstood" tour until 2017. And he's determined that the songs receive the attention he thinks they deserve.
Asked last month how many tunes from the album he expected to play during his summer festival dates (including Stagecoach), he said maybe one or two. Set lists from the past few weeks, though, show he's started doing quite a few more than that.
"I could tell as it was happening that something special was going on here," he said. "I didn't know what it was, just that these were my favorite songs I'd ever written."