By all accounts, Eric Church's third full-length Chief, released in 2011, could be classified a runaway success.

By all accounts, Eric Church's third full-length Chief, released in 2011, could be classified a runaway success.

The album has now sold more than 1.8 million copies, in addition to spawning a quartet of top ten songs on the Billboard Hot Country chart: "Drink in My Hand," "Springsteen," "Creepin'" and "Like Jesus Does." Furthermore, the record netted the North Carolina-born country star an Album of the Year statue at the 2012 CMA Awards, an honor he described as "the most rewarding thing" in a late August phone interview.

"I always felt like I didn't know where our home was [musically]. We were too rock, or we were too country; we were too this or too that," said Church, 38, who performs as part of the 92.3 WCOL Country Jam, which takes place Sept. 4 and 5 at Legend Valley. "To win that award, and have it be there as a historical marker, was a … fulfilling thing to me as a fan of country."

At the same time, Church, who relished the outsider niche he'd carved for himself coming up, blanched at the prolonged mainstream embrace, recoiling like an angst-ridden teenager from a parental hug.

"I felt uncomfortable because we went from a fringe act success-wise to … very squarely in the center of things," he said. "When you stay out on the fringes, it's really easy to be fluid and mobile creatively, and that's what I love to do. I never want people to be sure what's next from us."

So when Church regrouped to begin work on a follow-up, he entered into sessions determined to shake things up rather than attempting to replicate the success of Chief.

The resulting album, The Outsiders, released in 2014, is darker, more sprawling and deeply weirder than its predecessor, incorporating long, winding spoken-word rants ("Devil, Devil," an eight-plus-minute takedown of Nashville's Music Row), prog-metal outbursts ("The Outsiders") and reflective, low-key ballads about embracing the settling that comes with age ("A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young").

"They're the in-crowd, we're the other ones," Church drawls on the album-opening title track, which stakes out his preferred place on the periphery. "It's a different kind of cloth that we're cut from."

"I knew when we put this album out that it was going to be a departure, and it was certainly made that way," said the musician, who was born and raised in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and moved to Nashville following college with an eye on establishing himself as a songwriter. "I was uncomfortable being that guy again; I really wanted The Outsiders to be more restless creatively."

This restlessness carried over into the prolonged writing sessions, which netted a batch of 121 songs, only a dozen of which made the final cut.

"And it wasn't because the other songs weren't any good," Church said. "It was because I couldn't find what the record was supposed to be, so I was really prospecting."

Of course, Church's skill with a pen is a large part of what separates him from his country music peers, and even when he tackles subject matter familiar to the genre, he does so with an eye on upending convention. Witness "Cold One," which opens like a paean to carefree, booze-filled summer days - "It was a perfect day at the end of May," Church sings in a line that could preface any number of feel-good modern country tunes - before taking an unexpected detour.

"She grabbed a beer, said, 'I'm out of here,'" he continues, "And walked out of my life."

"I feel like a lot of [country music] now is about good times, and it feels like good times. But the music doesn't say as much as I think it could, and I think that's on all of us: artists, songwriters, everybody," Church said. "The one thing I miss, specifically in country, but really in all music, are those songs that rip you completely apart."

The Outsiders also reflects an increased maturity, with fewer songs about hard living and a grudging acceptance of the gray hairs beginning to sprout beneath his baseball cap.

"As a fan of music, I have all these artists I love, and you can listen to their entire catalog and hear the maturity [take root]. Sometimes it goes the other way (laughs). But you can see and feel what was happening in that artist's life at the time as you listen to the music," Church said. "The Outsiders is the first time in my career where you can definitely hear I'm a dad (the musician has two young sons).

"I've been doing this a bit now, and I'm not 25 anymore. If you want more of that [youthful] stuff, it's out there, too. It's on the Chief album. Or it's on Carolina or it's on Sinners Like Me. But for me it's about continuing to evolve and letting the music evolve, too. It'll be fun for me to see where we go from here."