With his first two albums, 2006′s ‘Sinners Like Me’ and 2009′s ‘Carolina,’ Eric Church enjoyed steadily, albeit modestly, increasing success — so you can imagine that a few industry eyebrows were raised when his latest release, ‘Chief,’ debuted at number one.

To celebrate Church’s first chart-topper, Billboard devoted a recent feature to analyzing his sales spike — and interviewing industry insiders who shared their theories about how it happened.

“When people hear him, they are immediately interested,” said Mike Dungan, president of Church’s label home, Capitol/EMI Nashville. “Listen to all three of his albums back-to-back and I think you’ll agree that there isn’t one artist working in this town who has made three records in a row that are this great.”

According to Dungan, building Church’s audience organically was key. “He started playing smaller venues, playing later at night to mostly male audiences, and the word of mouth took him from playing for 100 people a night to thousands, so he’s worked his way up to where he is now out on the road — and it keeps building.”

Until now, it’s been building without a lot of support from radio, according to Nate Deaton, the GM at KRTY in San Jose, California. “I think by and large country radio as a group has missed Eric Church,” he points out. “Whether it be bias against different-sounding material or just that programmers don’t get the connection he has with fans, they are simply wrong … The first album, ‘Sinners Like Me,’ may not have been a radio favorite, but anyone who has ever been to a Church show knows the impact it had. Watch the fans hold up their boots during ‘These Boots,’ or sing every word of ‘Sinners Like Me’ back to him and you’ll see the impact the music has.”

Church, of course, is grateful for his success, no matter the reason. “We played a lot of shows and we’ve made other records that people regarded well enough that they were going to buy this record. There was excitement. I didn’t know there was this kind of excitement,” he told Billboard. “I don’t tweet. I’m not a Facebook guy. I don’t do any of those things. To have this kind of success the first week, it’s about the music. [It is] really restoring my faith.”

[Taste of Country]