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ERIC CHURCH: REBEL WITH A CAUSE

Eric Church has always been his own man, doing it his own way. The roughneck kid from North Carolina, who’d end up 2020’s Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, has delivered fierce songs about blue-collar life and reality from the get-go. You could hear it on his 2006 debut album Sinners Like Me in the very real “Two Pink Lines” and “Guys Like Me.” After Church got kicked off a Rascal Flatts’ tour for playing too loud and too long, WME’s Jay Williams, Q Prime South’s John Peets and the hard-charging songwriter booked free “after shows”—often in rock clubs instead of more traditional country venues—on the same nights in the same markets.

Since then, Church has been wide open. With his fierce approach—lead with tough singles like the career-defining “Homeboy” from the 2012 CMA Album of the Year Chief and the title track of 2016’s Mr. Misunderstood and leave everything you’ve got onstage—he forged a fan base unlike any other. The Church Choir not only shattered the attendance record at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium, they’ve made double plays a rule in every market, with completely different setlists for each show.

With “Hell of a View” becoming his 10th #1 single, two albums—Heart and Soul—topping the Country charts on consecutive weeks while his 2021 Gather Again Tour has been blowing out most markets in a matter of hours, there’s no slowing him down. Just before COVID changed the world, Church recorded three LPs simultaneously in an off-season North Carolina mountain restaurant with a rotating cast of writers and musicians and captured creativity in the fire. 

While there are easier ways to do it, the mirrored-aviator-wearing superstar doesn’t care. It’s all about the fans—the four-hour shows, the special vinyl mailings to the Church Choir, the songs that cut against country music’s feel-good grain—and giving more than he gets. UMG Nashville’s Mike Dungan and Cindy Mabe are deeply invested in how Church and his team see the world, and it’s one hell of a view indeed.

Some of your fans might not be so ready to get vaccinated.
I’ve always been as libertarian as they get. I’m a liberty guy; that’s where I line up most. I get that part—I do. I think in order to get people back together sooner rather than later, I would encourage everybody to get vaccinated. If you don’t want to get vaccinated, I would encourage you to wear a mask to shows. It’s your life, your body; you can make that decision for yourself. But that would be my recommendation.

You did it.
Yeah. I didn’t think I could tell people to go and get vaccinated, that this is our best way back to live shows, if I didn’t believe in it. I took the Pfizer shot; that’s what was available. But I like that technology. One of the first places I heard about that technology was in the diabetes realm, because my mom has diabetes. It’s been around forever, by the way; everybody said it’s new technology, but it’s been around for 30 years. 

You’re really passionate about getting on the road.
The longer that we go without shows and getting together with people we share a common interest with, whether it’s sports or gambling or music, those things bind us to each other, and losing those things is just as dangerous as COVID. It’s very isolationist and tribalist, and that, in my opinion, is every bit as dangerous. 

The sooner we can get back to putting our arms around each other is everything. You know, when I look out at 20,000 people, I have no idea if you’re Democrat, Republican or Independent. At that moment, we’re all about that song and that moment. That’s the humanity of it, and that’s what’s been the biggest travesty in all of this.

With people not trusting the media, the politicians...
I hope if anything, we’re a band you can trust. We’ve always treated our fans the right way, so I felt the people should know: I got the shot and I’m OK. There are people close to me who don’t think it’s fair when you’re talking about health to be told they have to do something. I understand that’s a liberty. And I know there will be a percentage who won’t do it, and I respect that. But it’s really on them—if they go to a show, there’s a risk there they’re taking. I don’t believe it’s fair for the municipality, the sporting event or me that I can’t go tour the way I want to go tour, because a percentage don’t want to get the shot.

I hope people understand this is a public-health measure. You can do it. Polio? We eradicated polio, and there wasn’t a choice. I remember the TB [vaccinations]. I went to public school. You had to have a certain number of vaccinations to get into kindergarten. If you didn’t have those, you couldn’t go to public school. I anticipate, and you’re starting to see, a lot of universities, growing in number daily, that are going to require vaccinations for students to be on campus and attend classes. That will become normal. 

Social media has helped spread the word.
It also lets the more malicious people get involved, social media and people with agendas. The more you’re separated and the more you’re isolated, the more susceptible you are to crazy shit. The sooner we can be human again—that’s the thing, just be human—the better off we’re going to be as people living life. That’s how I’ve been focusing: I look forward to that day when we go, “Hey remember COVID? That sucked.” 

You certainly have a more blue-collar Springsteen audience.
That’s our DNA, where we came from. I think we’re a blue-collar soul band. That’s where we came from, those blue-collar towns and bars, theaters, clawing your way, chip on your shoulder, not making any money for years, can’t get radio to participate. You’re an outcast. I identify so much with that personality; it’s always going to come out for me.

I’m from Cleveland, a Rust Belt factory town, and I can see you tilt to those kinds of hearts on this album trifecta.
I didn’t realize I’d written about hearts so many times. I had “Heart on Fire,” “Heart of the Night,” “Never Break Heart.” It didn’t occur to me ’til the end that those themes were coming through. These were the thoughts coming out of my head; that’s why there’s a theme. That’s what makes this record. Halfway through the project, we were committed to write a song, record a song, check it out and then move on every day. Jay [Joyce] would stay in the studio after we were done, listening. Next day, we’d start again. 

We were 12, 13 songs in. I was like, “Is this any good?” Jay gave me a bit of a grin, says, “Pretty good.” Because it was done that way, you get to see what was on my conscience from an artist’s perspective. You also get to see a playful thing I’d never done before. This record removed a self-consciousness that I had to be a certain way. I’m playing with my vocal, or [sings “Kansas City”] I’m doing a lot of Sly & the Family Stone shit. It gets real just having fun. People in the studio are laughing. You could hear Joanna [Cotton]; I’m making her laugh by playing with my voice. We created a playground; we just started to run around in there. Back to the Springsteen thing, he did that really, really well.

You also made yourself vulnerable.
I didn’t edit what I showed. Whatever came out that day, we put that on. Maybe we put it out on Heart or & or Soul, but that’s it, that’s what you get. This was 28 days, period. Normally how we make records, I write a bazillion songs, then we have a small group and I’ll start to find the album. If I realize I’m missing a thing or two; I’ll focus on those. I’ll start to sharpen the edges. That’s the vulnerability. I wasn’t thinking, I’m going to get dinged because I sing about the heart all the time [laughs]. “He sings about being in his car all the time...” I didn’t think about that. 

There’s the whole, and there are the individual tracks. “Bad Mother Trucker” is completely different in context. Isolated, it’s brazen. When I heard it on the album—I hate saying this ’cause you’re from North Carolina—but you’re kind of a feminist.
I’ve been called worse!

That vulnerability and celebration of female strength—you didn’t think, you proclaimed. 
I’ve had a ton of people say that to me, when they first heard that song on its own that they didn’t get it like they did when they listened to the project. That thrills me. I may be the old guy now, but I don’t know how to make music and not make it in the album prism. I cannot throw songs into the ether and not give them parameters. Otherwise, why would one song be on one record and not the other? For me, this was the most fun, because the songs grouped themselves. If you take the records, Heart, &, Soul, honest to God, I don’t think a song on Heart really fits on Soul. Maybe “Love Shined Down.” They’re written days apart in the same place, but they grouped themselves. That’s one of those meant-to-be things where creativity ends up winning. The feeling ends up guiding you, becomes the compass.

Where were you when COVID hit?
At the microphone. Somebody said, “Have you heard about this virus?” I remember saying, “What are we talking about?” They said, “There’s this virus that comes from China,” and started talking about it. That’s the first time. I was isolated from TV, being in the studio, because I’d been in writing mode and hadn’t seen what the world was doing. It’s amazing to think about.

Your fans are really vocal. Where’s the Church Choir in all this?
I think they’re ready to go. I hope by my doing the vaccine, people who were apprehensive would get the shot and not be apprehensive. I did it; everyone in my organization’s done it. We’re ready to strap on guitars and play. 

I wanted to give them peace of mind, a bit of a map. I said, “I’ll do it first. Then you guys can decide if you want to follow.” All of a sudden, they felt comfortable piping up in the fan feed: “Second shot today!” or “Got mine.” Before I did it, they were scared to talk about it. After, we got a lot of people saying, “I got mine too.” In that social community, it helped people who didn’t know if they were going to get it or not—see, all these people got it. It shows there’s a communications aspect there. That was exactly what I wanted to happen.

Because you’re an outlier, you get saddled with the rebel thing.
People don’t let me evolve. That was a long time ago. We still have rebel tendencies, but we’ve grown. I don’t ever think, “I need to rebel against this.” It’s just that what I do doesn’t always fit in a box.

That’s a distinction where you’ve stood out. The Outlaws were principled. They were all very respectful men who wanted to do the right thing, especially for the people. Johnny Cash didn’t walk into prison because he was going to get a great live album out of it. 
Anybody who thought him playing Folsom Prison would end up being the greatest live album ever, that’s insane. You would have never conceived that, but he said, “Let’s go do this.” 

Does being “that guy” become a burden or an expectation? As the genre becomes more happy party train, no one else speaks for the real working-class people who were always country.
I 100% agree. Your assessment, the second part, is exactly right. The first part, did I feel the responsibility? Looking back as I’ve gotten older, I think there’s an instinctual element to it. You were talking about those Outlaw guys being principled, that’s pretty much constant. If you look back at my career, I’ve never been the guy who wants to be the rebel, the tough guy, though I’ve sometimes done that with my words or my songs or what I’ve done. Because I believe that’s what I should sing or write or say or do. I still believe that. 

And the artists I love, I don’t agree with them all the time, but I love them, because I know they believe with all their hearts. That’s what makes them great artists. When you’re that kind of person, you have those beliefs and you’re not scared to show them. It comes out in the music, in the art. I never reacted to the label. I never one time thought, “Well we’re supposed to do this.” We just did it, and they said what they were going to say. Fine. I don’t care. I’d do it again. Too many times, especially with new artists, it’s just really hard, because you never get to show yourself; you never get to find out who you are. But if I was going down, I was going down as me. If I’m going to sink, I’m going to sink on my own ship. 

You’re known for aggressive, almost “fuck you” singles.
[Laughs] I heard the exact same quote from the other side. People were saying “I can’t believe you had the balls to put that out as a single!” It worked both ways. Again, I hate that we kinda have an MO. I’m okay saying this; I’ll be honest: You always know our first single is going to be heat. Because it’s my best chance to give you something before you’ve heard anything else. It’s the best chance to get played. Because it’s meaningful, I’m not just putting that out to have people talking. There’s a reason that song is first—because it’s the one I believe is gonna be the hardest for radio to play. Because it’s the most important. We did that with “Stick That in Your Country Song.” Nobody was hearing anything else until we’d addressed that one. Because these radio songs, once that happens, you’ve lost all your leverage. 

“Mr. Misunderstood” goes in that category too. I’m saying that’s thought out not from an act of rebellion but from trying to move the format. I’m trying to put something out there that’s going to be a lot harder to address if we wait. I’m giving it the biggest spotlight, the biggest megaphone. In my career, I have a handful of five—and that’s one of my five—that I’m as proud of as anything. At that time, I had Boone; Hawk was just being born. There’s a parenting thing there, where I was dealing with all the bullying we were seeing in the country—that was really big at that time. It’s still big. There was a lot of that I identified with. I was the music guy at times, but I identified with that in my career too. Even as an artist, we couldn’t find anybody for me to sit beside at awards shows, because I was different. 

That’s been exploited.
They want the clicks. I won’t do a lot of interviews; I got turned off by it. With The Outsiders, I had a number of things I was being honest about, and it turned into this clickbait. I realized that even reporters I liked, their magazines or whatever they were writing for, they’d use the most sensational headline for a non-sensational dialogue. Once you’ve read it, you’d go, “But that story’s not anything like that headline.” It drove me crazy. All you guys are trying to get paid, to direct traffic by clicks. But you’re not telling the story. It’s a misrepresentation. It’s asinine. What it really should be about is the honesty of the person and where they’re coming from. Trust me, I’ll give plenty of heat anyway—we don’t have to soup it up.

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