Last fall, Eric Church was standing in his office, perusing the concert photos hanging on the wall, when one caught his eye. It captures the defiant country superstar standing amid a throng of fans packed tightly around him, their arms raised and waving like a many-tentacled creature. Church looks up at the camera from behind his omnipresent Ray-Bans, a sly smile on his face.
Today, he has another perspective on the scene. “It looks so strange to see me in the middle of this pit, hugging everybody and taking shots of Jack Daniel’s,” says Church. “It’s like, ‘What universe...?’ It just seems so far away. All I’ve ever done is play live shows. That’s my whole gig.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the concert industry, it robbed Church — and every other artist — of the act that gives his fans unalloyed joy, fulfills his own sense of purpose and offers everyone a temporary respite from the outside world. “That has been the hardest thing about COVID: It takes what you do,” says Church. “I used the music and the stage to get me through some of those darker things that were more personal,” including a near-fatal blood clot in his chest in 2017 and the death of his younger brother in 2018. “Take that away, and you’ve got to deal with some of the stuff you maybe haven’t dealt with.”
To avoid spiraling, Church took a somewhat different tack from his fellow artists. He didn’t plan some elaborate livestreaming event; he didn’t envision clever new merchandise. Diving down his own rabbit hole, Church met with epidemiologists, venue managers and industry vets within his own circle, determined to figure out how to get back onstage safely. At first, his personal team of experts said touring wouldn’t return until spring 2023 at the earliest. Then, with unprecedented speed, pharmaceutical companies developed vaccines. “I view it as a godsent miracle,” he says. “It became very clear to me that the only way to really get back to normal is through vaccinations. You’ve got to get needles in arms.”
That Church would take a strong stance on what has become a politically divisive issue comes as little surprise to anyone familiar with him. From the start, he has followed his internal compass more than the demands of country radio — early singles “Two Pink Lines” and “Smoke a Little Smoke” glorified, respectively, the joys of seeing a negative pregnancy test and getting high — focused instead on building his audience at concerts rather than on the airwaves.
In 2017, he crusaded against ticket scalping (“the bane of my existence”) and, with his team, developed a proprietary system that canceled over 25,000 price-inflated tickets for his Holdin' My Own tour. After the massacre at that year’s Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, Church — who had taken the stage two nights before the mass shooting and says he’s still haunted by it — spoke out in favor of common-sense gun reform; although he pointed out that he’s a gun owner and Second Amendment supporter, plenty of fans threatened to boycott him, and the National Rifle Association saw fit to remind him that its members have “a long memory — just ask the Dixie Chicks.”
But Church isn’t a throw-all-caution-to-the-wind renegade: He knows the value of being a symbol and the power that comes with a platform like his. That was obvious in February at the Super Bowl, where he performed the national anthem with R&B powerhouse Jazmine Sullivan. Church recalls Roc Nation, which produces the game’s entertainment, approaching him: “[They said] ‘Listen, we want a Caucasian country artist, and we want an African American female R&B artist.’ ” After a year that “was so divisive,” says Church, “I just liked what they were trying to do.”
He can also speak to his fans, not at them, in a way that has allowed him to lead with his actions while keeping audiences that can fill arenas. When asked about the incident earlier this year when Morgan Wallen was caught on video saying the N-word, his response is one both Wallen devotees and those calling for his expulsion from the industry would have trouble finding fault with. Though Church (whom Wallen calls his musical hero) sent him a note telling him he was praying for him and to keep “hanging in there,” he’s resolute in addressing Wallen’s actions: “That was indefensible. I was heartbroken when it happened. I think Morgan’s trying to work on that and on himself. And I hope he does.”
That ability to speak to both sides of an issue without pandering or seeming insincere is, in part, what drove Church to approach Billboard with the idea of completing his vaccination on our cover. There’s also the small matter of his own plans for the coming months: releasing a three-part album package, Heart & Soul, and setting out on a soon-to-be-announced fall arena tour to support it — one he only wants to happen at 100% capacity, with fans standing shoulder to shoulder, just like in that picture on his office wall.
That means he needs as many of those fans as possible to get vaccinated. In a CBS News poll published in March, 33% of Republican voters surveyed said they had no intention of getting a shot, compared with 10% of Democrats. Church’s fans fall across the political spectrum — and he feels he’s uniquely positioned to convince fence-sitters to hop over to his side, not browbeat anti-vaxxers into compliance. “If you believe you shouldn’t, I don’t have a problem with it. I’m a liberty guy, too. I get it,” he says. “But I view this a little differently than most other things. We’ve never encountered this.”
Eric Church hardly seemed destined to become an ambassador for country music. From the earliest days of his career, he has never particularly cared for satisfying industry expectations. In 2010, unhappy with Universal Music Group Nashville’s choices for the first singles from his second album, Carolina, he demanded “Smoke a Little Smoke” come next.
“I would look at me now and go, ‘No f--king way we’re doing that,’ ” recalls Church with a laugh. At the time, though, it was his Alamo: He threatened to walk if the label didn’t agree. UMG Nashville blinked — and, later, came to trust Church’s instincts: “Smoke” became huge with his live audience, setting up 2011’s Chief, the album that made him a bona fide arena headliner.
A couple of years earlier, on the heels of his debut, Sinners Like Me, Church’s demands didn’t meet quite so patient a response. He was opening for Rascal Flatts, an act as mainstream as he was edgy, and he wasn’t too keen on abiding by certain tour restrictions. At Madison Square Garden in New York, he deliberately (and egregiously) exceeded his allotted stage time. Rascal Flatts fired him — and gave his spot to a 16-year-old Taylor Swift.
“It sucked that we lost the chance for those large audiences to experience him so early in the career, but when I heard the reason he was fired, I laughed and applauded,” says UMG Nashville chairman/CEO Mike Dungan. “It was Eric being a badass, and I was proud of him.” The label funded Church’s next move: playing local clubs at every remaining tour stop on the group’s own show nights. He called it the Me and Myself outing — a play on Rascal Flatts’ “Me and My Gang” title.
“That was a real jerk move in a way,” John Peets, Church’s longtime manager at Q Prime South, says with a laugh. But it was also a career-defining one. “You can roll over, or you can stand up knowing you’re going to live with a hurricane wind in your face and this might be the end,” he continues. “Which guy are you going to be? I think that was one of the first kind of big, public things that set that tone.”
Another came on Nov. 11, 2020, the night Church won entertainer of the year at the Country Music Association Awards after coming up short three previous times. He and Peets both saw the win as a directive to lead the best way Church knew how: by setting an example for a sensible return to touring. “I feel some responsibility now,” says Church. As Peets adds: “You’re going to wear the sash for a year, you’re the leading entertainer. Maybe there are some things that we do a little differently because of that. That kind of led into helping forge a responsible way to come back to work.”
Plenty of artists say they live for the road, but for Church it’s not hyperbole. He calls playing his high-octane, three-hour-plus concerts his “whole gig.” Today, the 43-year-old is speaking over Zoom from the wood-paneled writer’s cabin he has used as an office for the past year, 20 minutes from the Nashville home he shares with wife Katherine and sons Boone, 9, and Hawk, 6. “I make music. I play music. I’m a dad and a husband,” he says. “I like that part of my life.”
He has never made a morning TV appearance, and he last played late night in 2016. He’s an admitted social media Luddite. (“I have no passwords.”) And though he has sold over 8 million albums, it’s his Billboard Boxscore stats that really tell his story: He has raked in $204.4 million and sold over 3.74 million tickets since 2012, and his 2019 Double Down tour — Billboard’s highest-grossing country outing of that year — drew 56,521 people to Nashville’s Nissan Stadium, breaking Swift’s attendance record there.
Returning to that level of touring is easier said than done. Peets estimates that, in the (hopefully) waning days of the pandemic, it’s still at least five times the usual work to figure out how a tour could work. Even the most basic tasks — ticketing, staffing, meet-and-greets, load-in and load-out — require deep reexamination, and there’s no national standard: Counties and venues will, at least at first, each have their own safety protocols based on local vaccination rates.
But Church’s team has some ground rules in place. If new protocols incur extra expense, Peets says they hope “to try and keep as much as possible off the consumer and absorb the additional costs on our side.” Since it’s not yet clear if ticket buyers will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test upon venue entry, Peets says tickets will go on sale much closer to show dates (likely around six weeks beforehand) instead of the usual several months prior.
Messina Touring Group CEO Louis Messina, who has been promoting Church’s tours for nearly a decade, has spent the last few months working with Church’s WME agent, Jay Williams, and venues, weaving and reweaving potential tour routings and start dates as buildings open and move toward operating at capacity. “We have planted our flag in the sand, but it’s not in concrete,” says Messina. The ground beneath them shifts almost daily.
Long before it entered the pandemic lexicon, Church was embracing the idea of forming a pod. In January, wanting to shake up his recording process for Heart & Soul, he, his longtime producer Jay Joyce and his band took over Artisanal, a restaurant in the mountains of Banner Elk, N.C. (Church hails from Granite Falls, about an hour south), and turned it into a recording studio. Every few days, a rotating cast of songwriters and musicians came through to write and then immediately record in the evening. They churned out 24 songs in 28 days.
“Disruption works well with him,” says Peets of Church. “He likes to make that three-point shot.” After 2018’s Desperate Man, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, Church felt like he needed a major change of pace; he loved the album, but “it felt entitled. It felt stagnant. It felt like we just showed up in the studio after playing an arena tour, and we just were supposed to make an album. There was no urgency, hunger, and I kind of wanted that back.”
He came out of the mountain sessions with three albums: The rock-leaning Heart, out April 16; & (pronounced “ampersand”), available on vinyl or streaming only to members of the official Church Choir fan club starting April 20; and the groove-driven Soul, out April 23, with songs reflecting the Muscle Shoals and Motown influences on his sound.
Peets immediately loved the triple-album idea, though he admits to one concern at the time: “If he walks out of the situation with no record or one record, it’d be the most expensive record known in country music, probably.” (UMG Nashville provided a budget, and Church covered the overage the ambitious project required.) And while Dungan says the label “completely understood the mission” for the project, it “didn’t love the idea” of Church releasing some music that would be available only to his fan club.
They have been here before: In 2015, Church surprised 2,500 of his premium fan club members (the first of three levels of membership) with white vinyl copies of his album Mr. Misunderstood before his label had even heard it. Q Prime had purchased a press on the floor of a vinyl plant in Diepholz, Germany, to facilitate the order, plus an additional 12,500 copies for independent record stores. (Church is still a stakeholder in the press.) All told, 80,000 Choir members got the music for free (whether from vinyl, digital album download or early stream) and Dungan, understandably, was none too pleased. Like most matters between Church and his label, “we worked it out,” says Dungan today. (According to Peets, they’ll likely press 15,000 copies of & domestically.)
Church says he has reached an understanding with country radio, too. “There are a lot of people [who just want] to put something out that’s going to go to No. 1 every time. And that’s fine,” he says. “That’s just not my goal. I’m trying to push the narrative a bit for the whole industry, for the whole format.” (It probably helps that he has managed to earn six solo Country Airplay No. 1s and another three as a collaborator.)
Still, he can’t help occasionally poking a stick in the eye of the country establishment. Church didn’t write the withering “Stick That in Your Country Song” (from Heart), but as soon as he heard it, he knew he had to record it: With its demands for hits to confront the real hardships people face, it’s a not-so-subtle dig at radio stations, labels and fellow artists who place fluff over substance. Jeffrey Steele, the song’s co-writer, declared it would be “suicide” for someone to cut it — which was really all the incentive Church needed.
He made it the first Heart & Soul single. “ ‘There’s no chance I’m not putting this out,’ ” Church recalls thinking. “I love how in your face it is. I love how honest it is. I love how Jeffrey thought no one in their right mind would record it and send it to radio.”
Writing and recording one song nearly every day had a profound effect on Church. “It made me work harder as a writer — ’bout killed me,” he says. “From a sleep standpoint, I’ve never really been that unhealthy. No matter what that night was, I had to go right back on the clock for the next day. It was almost manic. I could not shut it off.” By the end, he says, he had somehow begun writing songs in his dreams: “That was wild.”
On Heart & Soul, Church’s gift for storytelling shines. His cinematic details tell the listener everything they need to know about a character, often in one line: “The only pack I ever ran with were the cigarettes in my pocket,” he sings on “Lone Wolf”; he sums up a torched romance on “Look Good and You Know It” with “I’m just choking on the smoke of a bridge I burned.”
“I know these are big names to be throwing around, but Eric has always been a cross between Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson to me,” says Grammy Award-winning songwriter Luke Laird, a frequent collaborator who co-wrote three songs on the new project. “Eric can take the simplest phrases and the same three chords we all know and turn it into brilliance. I’ve seen him throw away lines and even entire songs that a lot of writers would kill to write.”
Joyce says the immediacy of the project allowed Church to thrive. Singing songs that had been finished literally minutes earlier rather than months before, his voice has a newly commanding vitality, easily running from a bass growl to a falsetto. “He has always had that thing where he can sing a line and people just pay attention,” says Joyce. “It’s not like he’s some fantastic opera singer. He’s just a great communicator.”
Nowhere is that skill more evident than on “Through My Ray-Bans,” a love letter to his fans inspired by his experience at the Route 91 festival. “I’m not sure you get past something like that,” he says of the tragedy. “That broke me in a lot of ways because that was my safe place — on that stage, around those people. A lot of fans had our T-shirt on that night when they died. That was a really, really, really tough thing to get through.”
For Church, returning to the road is the only thing that could help repair those broken places. That’s why he registered on waiting lists in multiple counties around Nashville as soon as he became vaccine-eligible — using his first name, Kenneth, so he wouldn’t get a celebrity skip-the-line offer. It’s also why, starting the night of the Academy of Country Music Awards (April 18), he’ll appear in public service announcements for ACM Lifting Lives’ vaccine education initiative, a partnership with the Ad Council that will run at least through summer. By then, he’ll hopefully be safe to “strap a guitar on” again: He’s slated to play over a half dozen summer festivals, including Carolina Country Music Fest in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming; and Big Valley Jamboree in Camrose, Alberta.
“I just want to play shows,” says Church. “Politics’ job is to divide — that’s how you win elections. Those things that unite us are music and sports. The times when, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican or whatever, you throw your arm around the person next to you.” And when his own tour comes to pass, that’s what he’s looking forward to most. He’ll play the song “Holdin’ My Own,” during which, as always, he’ll see his fans all put their arms around one another. “We become one,” says Church. “We need that. I need that.”