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On the fringes of country

Eric Church remembers his first arena tour, and not so fondly.

His 2011 album "Chief" had reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and spawned two No. 1 singles for the country singer. The success gave his band an instant upgrade.

"When 'Chief' came out, we were in theaters. Suddenly, we're in arenas, and I don't think we handled it that well," Church says, who is in the midst of his "The Outsiders" arena tour.

The trick, he says, it to treat every show the same, whether it is at an arena, in a theater or in a nightclub.

"The bigger the room, the smaller the room should feel," Church says. It took him 30 or 40 arena shows to figure out how to make that happen.

So far, Church's second arena tour has been more successful than the first, both in terms of attendance — it has averaged more than 11,500 tickets per show and recently drew more than 18,000 for a date in Nashville — and personal gratification.

The band plays on a stage that's visible from 360 degrees, with fans on all sides.

"They almost end up on top of you," Church says. "This is the most fun I've had on tour since the bars and clubs."

If Church is one of country music's top artists, he's also a bit of an outsider — hence the tour's name. The singer brings a definite edge to the genre, influenced in equal parts by country artists Hank Williams Jr. and Merle Haggard and rock acts like Little Feat, AC/DC and others. His set lists can change from night to night, and he often mixes his own hits — songs like "Drink in My Hand" and "Talladega" — with covers from Lynyrd Skynyrd or Black Sabbath. At a recent show, he ended his anthem, "Smoke a Little Smoke," by transitioning into the Sabbath song "Sweet Leaf."

Even the tour's lineup, which features Dwight Yoakam and Halestorm, is a melding of the country and rock worlds.

Yoakam is a country icon, known for bringing honky-tonk and the Bakersfield sound to contemporary audiences in the 1980s. Halestrom has some Nashville connections — the band's upcoming album was produced by Joy Joyce, who worked on Church's newest — but is very much a hard rock group. It won the Grammy award for Best Hard Rock performance in 2013.

If all this puts Church on the outside of the country music establishment, that is OK. He is most comfortable there.

"I like the fringes," he says.

That makes him refreshing, says Jody Jo Mize, morning show host and music director at Fresno's KISS Country KSKS FM 93.7.

"He is his own filter," she says. "He won't allow anyone to tell him what kind of music to make."

It isn't anything new. We've seen this kind of outlaw country come and go over the years, Mize says. Think of Yoakam, the junior Williams or Waylon Jennings. That was lost in the '90s with the Garth Brooks set. Brooks' music and performances were high-energy, but they were not "rock," Mize says.

These days, it's "bro country" that rules the charts and airwaves. But the success of Church and others like him (Brantley Gilbert, for one) could mean that country music is moving in a different , more rockin' direction, Mize says.

"There was a void in that area that country desperately needed filled," she says.

Eric Church performs in 2011 at the 46th Annual Academy of Country Music's Fan Jam in Las Vegas.