The country rebel delivers an intimate evening of surprises — including an announcement of his all-time favorite song
Eric Church is known for his musical surprises, and he was primed for an epic one when the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum named him its 2023 artist-in-residence. For two nights, Nashville’s intimate CMA Theater would be his, but what would he do?
Roll out a wild and rollicking three-hour set, as he does on tour? Perhaps turn in an expansive acoustic medley, like he did (for a half-hour) at the 2019 CMA Fest? Or maybe drop a slew of new music, like he did in 2015 with Mr. Misunderstood?
In the end — not surprisingly — Church went for something he’s never done before, and it was indeed epic: a musical journey through his life and career in a setting that felt more like a living room than an 800-seat theater. (Or at least a living room where a six-piece band and three backup singers regularly drop in.)
Over an 85-minute set, the 46-year-old artist didn’t utter a spoken word until introducing his final song. Instead, he simply took a stool, played his guitar and let 19 flawlessly curated songs tell his story.
Dominating the back of the stage was a video screen framed by a colossal replica of a ’60s-style television set, and it served as narrator, identifying Church’s phases with audio and visual snippets mostly drawn from his media coverage.
“Eric Church is a country music sellout,” a news commentator’s voice opined as Church, alone on stage, patiently played his opening notes on an acoustic guitar. “His songs are unfortunately forgettable.”
It was the sort of naysaying that he's attracted, particularly in his early career, and Church deftly rebutted it, sailing through the insistently memorable “On the Road.” It’s a new song, debuted in a North Carolina concert in August.
As his band's guitarists and drummer joined him in a cluster over his left shoulder, Church then rewound to the very beginning, performing an emblematic version of his 2006 debut single, “How ’Bout You” — after a video introduction that lamented, “It’s a shame that Church’s debut sounds so anonymous.”
The point-counterpoint continued as Church soared through “Carolina,” the title song from his second album in 2009, and “Smoke a Little Smoke,” his controversial radio single from 2010, before he landed on a cut from 2011 breakout album Chief: “Country Music Jesus.” By now, of course, many of his Church Choir devotees consider that song a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The next five selections reflected Church’s vertical rise to superstardom: “Springsteen” (from Chief), “Talladega” and “Give Me Back My Hometown” (from 2014’s The Outsiders), and album title track “Mr. Misunderstood” and “Record Year” (also from Mr. Misunderstood).
But just as the evening seemed headed toward a greatest-hits showcase, Church jerked the wheel toward his real-life trials in recent years. The electronic narrator first reminded the audience of his brush with death from a blood clot in 2017.
“Doctors told him that immediate surgery was needed at Duke University Hospital in Durham,” the video clip soberly reported, “because the vibrations of a helicopter could dislodge the clot. He was put on blood thinners and driven two-and-a-half hours by ambulance.”
Church’s musical response, “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young,” actually backtracked to 2014 when he recorded his astonishment over making it to his 36th year. This time, he updated the lyrics to reflect his current age: “This morning I turned 46 / and you just remember half of it / it’s a wonder that you outlived Hank and Jesus.”
Church then turned in two more older-and-wiser selections from 2018’s Desperate Man, “Some of It” and “Monsters,” before confronting what surely is country music’s darkest day, the Route 91 Harvest Festival massacre in 2017. He played the Las Vegas event two nights before a lone gunman killed 60 concertgoers and wounded over 400 more. Three days after the shooting, the grief-stricken artist debuted his haunting response, “Why Not Me,” before a somber Grand Ole Opry audience.
As he did that night, Church performed solo, to his own guitar accompaniment, before a hushed theater crowd. Then, as he played the final notes, he rose from the stool and inexplicably wandered offstage. Mere moments later, perhaps Church’s biggest shocker of the evening emerged from the shadows: Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill, who took the stage solo to sing his stirring signature anthem, “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”
The video voiceover made clear that Gill was delivering Church’s tribute to his younger brother, Brandon, who died, at age 36, in 2018 from consequences of chronic alcoholism.
Church himself has never addressed the loss in song, and surrendering his spotlight seemed as selfless as it was inspired. Indeed, the label-mates are bound by grief — Gill lost his own brother prematurely, and he began writing the song of mourning and comfort soon after Bob Gill's death in 1993. No doubt somewhere offstage, Church was melting into tears, along with the rest of the audience.
After Gill exited to a standing ovation, Church re-emerged with full band to perform the life-affirming “Never Break Heart": “Go on, get hurt, heart / Live and let learn, heart.” That song, along with the next selection, “Through My Ray-Bans,” appeared on Church’s latest album, 2021’s three-disc “Heart & Soul.”
Then finally, Church spoke, calling the residency “the greatest honor of my life.”
“Everything you saw tonight is who we are,” he told the audience, “and that, unbelievably, is how we got in this room.”
And still Church had one more surprise: After resisting for years, he said, he was finally ready to declare that his all-time favorite song is “Holdin’ My Own,” a cut off Mr. Misunderstood. Before performing it, he made sure to mention that his wife of 13 years, Katherine, and their two sons, Boone, 11, and Hawk, 8, were there to hear it.
And then he leaned into the lyrics: “Til I run out of time / I’m gonna spend the rest of mine / with one arm around my baby / and one arm around my boys.”
Perhaps it was telling that, of all the labels that had been submitted over the course of the evening — outsider, boundary pusher, icon and iconoclast — Church's final word left his audience with an impression of a seasoned man, a family man, and most of all, a grateful man.
The show, which Church reprised the following night, was described by veteran music journalist Robert K. Oermann in his introduction as something that Church and his band had “never done … and likely never will again.”
But Church has said in recent interviews that he’s planning intimate performances in the 470-capacity showroom at Chief’s, his Nashville bar that's set to open by the end of the year, and this residency showed he’s perfectly capable of similar surprises to come.
Church donated his performances to the museum; all proceeds support its educational mission. The two concerts were mounted in conjunction with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s exhibit, "Eric Church: Country Heart, Restless Soul," open through June 2024.
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