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"I don't think it's a bad boy side that I try to play," he tells Wisconsin's Post-Crescent. "It's who I am. A lot of people, especially in music, are programmed to tell you a certain thing or talk a certain way or have a certain image and appeal, and I've always just said what I thought and I've acted on that, too. I've never been one who really cared whether it helped or hurt my career. I was just always gonna be real about it."
The North Carolina native prides himself on writing or co-writing all of the songs on his albums. But in spite of his wordsmith ways, the 34-year-old admits he may not be the best judge of which of his songs are the best. "I've been burnt so many times," he admits. "If you write 12 songs on a record, you could probably convince me that they were all hits, but I try not to think about it anymore just because I've been wrong so much. I would think something was a sure fire hit and it would just die a slow, cruel death so I don't ever think about it anymore."
Eric's current single raised a few eyebrows after its lyrics, which began with the lines, "You were too bad for a little square town / With your hip-hop hat and your pants on the ground," were deemed racist by some listeners. Obviously, that wasn't Eric's intent, but he doesn't let the criticism bother him.
"I know the way it was written. I think people can take any song the way they wanna take it," he explains. "You can take a song and one person can have one experience and another person can have a totally different one. I just know the sentiment of the song is really about two brothers and one gets off on the wrong path. The message there, and myself included, is that we've all been on the wrong path at some point and time. Everybody has that moment when they go, if I continue down this road -- whatever road it is -- I'm gonna be in trouble if I don't change. And this song is about a brother trying to make the other brother realize it. You're going down the wrong path. I understand it because of the slang term 'homeboy' -- I get it -- but from my standpoint, that was the furthest thing from my intention."
'Chief' is the title of his new album, which is also his nickname among friends and family. But far from inferring his role as boss or superior, the reigning ACM Top New Solo Vocalist of the Year says the moniker actually started as a joke among his bandmates.
"My grandpa was chief of police for 35 years in Granite Falls, N.C., but the cool part of the story is my nickname on the road is Chief," explains the singer. "That's what the band calls me. That's what everybody calls me, and my grandpa's nickname was Chief so it was kind of a full circle ... [The band] started jokin' with me a few years ago when we were playing all these clubs in sweatbox places. I wear contacts and I have a problem with stage lights when they're right on my eyes. They make my contacts pop out, so I started putting on sunglasses and then I put on a baseball cap to keep my sweat from dripping when it's 200 degrees in these clubs. I got the nickname when I would put that on -- the hat and sunglasses -- everybody started calling me Chief. It was honestly kind of a joke and it just grew into it's own thing."
Eric may have found his home in country music, but he says he is equally at home in the rock world -- at least the rock world he used to know. "I rock harder than most," he boasts. "We played Lollapalooza last year. I'm not sure, we may have been the only country band to play Lollapalooza, and I was sorely disappointed. ... I'm a child of the '80s so I grew up listening to Metallica, Pantera, AC/DC -- they fricking rock. So we were out there and our live show's pretty rocking. It's pretty in-your-face, and I even joked when we left, 'I can't believe it took a country band or the country format to come up here and rock harder than all these rock bands at a rock festival.' It was very emo and weird and everything was very pop and techno. I thought most of it sucked."
The Tennessee resident will spend much of the summer on the road, performing his owns shows in between serving as opening act on Toby Keith's tour, which he says is the perfect fit for his own live performances.
"We've done things our own way. We don't care a whole lot about what people think and probably never will, and I think that makes for a good tour," Eric tells The Boot. "There's not people out there following rules and trying to be something that they're not, and I've always respected that about Toby, and I think that's so far why we've gotten along pretty well."
Toby's tour kicks off on June 30. Meanwhile, Eric is playing tonight (June 17) in Ohio, followed by shows in Kansas, Wisconsin and West Virginia. Keep track of his concert schedule here.