I haven’t always been an Eric Church fan. I’ve always kind of liked his music, but I never really paid much attention to him. That changed last fall. Church came to my hometown for a Labor Day Weekend concert series called Red, White, and Boom. He was one of the main acts, along with Jason Aldean and Florida/Georgia Line. I didn’t go to the concert for a number of reasons, but I was struck by the love for Church in the aftermath of the event. The social media postings of those who attended raved about his performance.
So, on a whim, I decided to give him a closer look. At the time, Record Year was getting a lot of play on the airwaves, so that’s where I started. Record Year is the story of a guy whose woman has left him, and he’s spending his time listening to classic albums on his record player. In his words, he’s working through his emotions by diving into a “three-foot stack of vinyl” of everything from George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings (the country outlaw types), to blues legend John Lee Hooker, to James Brown and Stevie Wonder, with a nod to New Grass Revival. And yeah, there’s more than a little whiskey being downed in the process.
This is not a millenial sitting in his parents’ basement wearing headphones listening to Justin Bieber downloads. This is a man who’s brought out the record player and is drinking in the scratchy vinyl albums of legends. You can feel the character. Forget technology. Forget corporate-made marketing hype acts. Give me the real stuff. On vinyl. Scratches, rough edges, and all.
This nod to the past tells you much of what you need to know about Church. He knows he’s indebted to the giants who came before him. Men who forged their own path and who lived life on their own terms. Yeah, they ended up with some bruises and scars, but man do they have stories to tell.
As I delved deeper, that’s Church. A rebel. A fighter. A whiskey lover who’s glad to smoke a little smoke. A man who shuns the glitz for the real. A man who is gonna blaze his own trail, to hell with the music industry. As he notes in Mr. Misunderstood, he “took a left when the world went right” and when the corporate folks tried “file [his] points and sand [his] edges”, he just “grew out [his] hair”. While this approach got him fired as the opener for Rascal Flatts, keeps his label pissed off, and has made him an industry outsider, it’s also the stuff that shows that he’s real, that his music is for him and his fans, and that he’s nobody’s puppet.
While his most recent album is a bit more mature, tempered, and introspective, his body of work shows that he knows the value of family (Homeboy, Holdin’ My Own, Three Year Old), tradition (Record Year, Mr. Misunderstood), having a good time (Smoke a Little Smoke, Jack Daniels, Drink in My Hand), a good woman (Like Jesus Does, A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young), small-town life (Give Me Back My Hometown), friendship (Talladega), and manliness (Keep On, Dark Side, The Outsiders).
As impressive as anything, he doesn’t just talk the talk. He never announced his last album, Mr. Misunderstood, when it was released in November 2015. He did no promotion before or after the release. He mailed (not e-mailed, mailed) free copies to members of his fan club the day before he sent copies to the radio stations. No advanced copies to the big-wigs who could help promote it. He went to the fans first, then to the stations. There’s a great story about a guy in Kentucky getting the album, with no notice, and wondering if he was the only one in the world who got it. The whole endeavor of secretly recording and producing an album wasn’t easy. He recorded the album using an alias at the studio so no one would know something was in the works and bought a plant in Germany to press the records and CD’s in secret. When he shipped the albums to the stations, he labeled them “Christmas Album” so that no one would open them until word was already out among his fans.
Once I got a taste of the music and a sense of the artist, I was a fan. My wife and I went to one of the last shows on his Holdin’ My Own tour (a tour that didn’t start until 13 months after the release of his album) on May 25 in Louisville at the KFC Yum Center. Church has an interesting process where he tries to make sure his concert tickets end up in the hands of actual fans, rather than scalpers who would drive up the price of admission. He sends private pre-sale links directly to his fan club. Then, he and his crew track ticket purchases and invalidate purchases that indicate scalpers, such as those that cross multiple venues or are unusually large. As a final precaution, the actual tickets don’t arrive until a few days before the show to prevent resales. That’s some pretty cool stuff that shows an obvious commitment to the people who made him successful.
The show in Louisville was the next-to-last stop on a tour that started in January. Being one of the last shows on a tour is a prime spot for an artist to mail in a performance; a place where he simply catches his breath for the final performances. I was cognizant of that going into the show and was watching for it. I was blown away.
There was no opening act. He performed two 90-minute sets (34 songs total) with an intermission. That’s roughly double what you get at most concerts. But the most impressive part was that both the intensity and joy of the performance were evident. The dude puts his soul into his music. In fact, before he wrote his last album, he was planning it to be a duet album. That didn’t work because it became clear to everyone who read the lyrics that these were Church’s songs, born out of something deep inside that couldn’t be replicated by someone else. Perhaps that was what stoked his intensity that never waned during the three-hour performance.
Throughout the night in Louisville, you could tell he was soaking up the satisfaction of the fans. There’s a certain beauty when you see someone doing something at a high level and can see them experiencing the both joy of the performance and the joy of how it’s being received. That’s what we saw in Louisville. A dude from North Carolina doing what he does best, pouring it out for his fans, and soaking up the joy of performing.
We need more men in music like Eric Church. Men who value toughness, family, tradition, friends, and substance. Men who walk the walk, who don’t back down, and have a good time doing it. So give him a look, you might just become a fan. Because a big part of the value of music is that it inspires us, my guess is you’ll be a better man for it.
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