“You walk out and start feeling the energy,” says Church, who recently completed a 62-night North American tour.
“You walk out and start feeling the energy,” says Church, who recently completed a 62-night North American tour.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

After A Record-Setting Tour, Eric Church Looks Ahead to What's Next

Eric Church isn't thinking about music. After six months on tour -- playing to arena crowds across North America, from Lincoln, Neb., to Nashville -- for 62 nights, the country music superstar is trying to quiet his mind. And he’s got the perfect place for reflection: his family’s summer retreat, 5,000 feet above sea level, in North Carolina’s High Country.

“I’m on top of the mountain with almost no cell reception,” says Church. “We picked this place for that reason. There’s, like, one place you can stand, if the weather’s right, to get cellphone service and communicate with the outside world. Otherwise, no one can get ahold of me up here.”

“Quiet” is the last word his fans associate with Church. The 40-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist has brought a rock’n’roll spirit to his style of country music since breaking out of his rural -hometown of Granite Falls, N.C. (population 4,700), more than a decade ago.

In 2011, Church hit No. 1 -- on both the Top Country Albums chart and the Billboard 200 -- with his album Chief, which took home the album of the year trophy from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. That album also sent two singles to No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart: “Springsteen,” with its nod to the New Jersey rocker, and the working-class blues of “Drink in My Hand.”

In November 2013, Church previewed his album The Outsiders at the CMA Awards with an intense blues-rock performance, complete with pyrotechnic bursts. Then, as if Nashville needed another sign that Church was a different kind of country star, days before the CMAs in 2015, he surprised the industry and delighted members of his fan club (known as The Church Choir) with a mail delivery of his new album Mr. Misunderstood, after acquiring a record-pressing plant in Germany.

For all his success as a recording artist, however, Church’s greatest, and growing, impact has been as a live performer, say those involved with his career from the start.

“Eric has always focused so much on touring and the strength of his live shows,” says Jay Williams, a partner at William Morris Endeavor who has booked Church since 2005, after seeing him play at the 300-capacity 12th and Porter club in Nashville. “In the early days, it didn’t matter if he was opening an arena show or playing a small club to 100 fans -- he always gave 110 percent. No two shows are the same, and each night there are going to be some surprises. His fans know he genuinely puts them first.”

Church’s Holdin’ My Own Tour, which concluded with sold-out shows May 26-27 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, sold 930,000 tickets, according to promoter Louis Messina of The Messina Group. Billboard Boxscore reports Church’s gross ticket sales at $53 million, which ranks him as the No. 6 top-grossing touring artist of the year to date. Fans will remember that tour by another metric: the marathon three-and-a-half hours Church played nightly as he crisscrossed the United States and Canada, often challenging his band to play his lesser-known material. Equipped with a deep catalog of songs (published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing), Church uses the football phrase for a quarterback’s surprise play -- “calling an audible” -- to describe how he’ll notify his band of the tracks he might call out during the show, leaving it only a few hours to prepare for a number it might not have performed in years. He regularly surprises his band by changing his setlist to keep the 36 to 37 songs in his shows fresh and energetic. “No one in country does two sets like this,” says Church’s longtime manager, John Peets of Q Prime South.

Peets helped conceive the lengthy show with an understated production aimed at building an intimate connection between the singer and his audience.

“It’s a big stage, but it’s not flashy,” says Peets. “There’s no pyro. There’s no moving big lights. The biggest thing we did for production was add a second light rig, because we light up the whole back part of the bowl and the floor. It created this ‘we’re all in this together’ kind of vibe.”

While the country music business has questioned his unconventional moves, like the surprise release of Mr. Misunderstood, Church has made peace with the Music City machine. “We’ve had enough success that they kind of let us do what we do,” says Church of his label, Capitol Records Nashville, a division of Universal Music Group Nashville.

At his mountain retreat, where he goes with his wife, Katherine Blasingame, and their two sons, 5-year-old Boone and 2-year-old Tennessee Hawk, whenever touring and school schedules allow, Church is taking time to golf, read, fly-fish -- and think. He’s still taking stock of the Holdin’ My Own Tour and what its success means for his career. Before school starts -- and because Church can only take so much self-reflection -- he’ll head back to Nashville. On Sept. 2, he’ll launch a short, late-summer amphitheater tour, promoted by Messina, concluding with the Route 91 Harvest Festival Sept. 29-Oct. 1 in Las Vegas. Before the year is out, he will have performed live for over 1 million fans.

But before all that, in a conversation from the mountaintop, Church talked about stardom and scalpers, terrorism and religion, the challenges of parenting and the road ahead.

On the Holdin’ My Own Tour, you played 62 shows with three-and-a-half-hour sets. Was it energizing or exhausting? 

It was both. We booked this tour before we decided we’re going to play shows this way. I knew I wanted to play all these songs that have earned their spot in our set. They’re an integral part of who we are [as a band]. I wanted to go out there and depend solely on our catalog and play for as long as we could.

When we routed this tour, we thought the sets would be shorter. There was one stretch where we did seven shows in 10 days. That was physically more than I thought it was going to be. My vocals and my entire body [were] exhausted.

That was also a marathon for the audience.

If a fan looked at the setlist, they’d say, “Holy shit, that’s a lot of songs.” You walk out there, and you start feeling the energy. I said many times, there’s a lot of nights they really did pull me. It became this collaborative thing where not only did I get to the end, but there’s times I just kept going because they got me to that ending. We got there together.

Did you record any of the shows for a future live album?

Oh yeah, we recorded all of it. We had some [songs] that I was adamant that I wouldn’t rehearse with the band. I would tell the band a couple hours before the show, “This is the song we’re going to do,” and then I wouldn’t see them until we did it, when we played live. I did that on purpose -- there were some nights that it was just magic. A song you’ve never played with your band. Nobody knows how we’re going to end it, nobody knows where the solos are, and you get to the end and it’s perfect. And some were disasters. As Ray Charles would say, “I was going to do what I was going to do.”

Were you able to write on the road?

I thought I could. I couldn’t. I’m still not able to write. Over the last month, I’ve been poking at it a little bit, picking up the guitar now and then. I’m still not there, mainly because of the tour and what it took from me creatively and emotionally. It just didn’t leave a whole lot left for other stuff.

Your last album, Mr. Misunderstood, arrived as a surprise release, secretly mailed to fans and announced at the CMA Awards. Would you ever do that again?

It was the most fun I ever had. It wasn’t preconceived [by the record company], and I think that’s what made it work. I think that’s why it had the success it had. I think that for me, the one lesson we learned there is, just trust the music, and trust that if you put it in the hands of your fan base, you’re going to end up where you want to end up.

Mr. Misunderstood felt much more personal than 2014’s The Outsiders, which was conceived as a thematic album. Were you looking inward when you wrote Mr. Misunderstood?

For The Outsiders, I had written 150 to 160 songs, and it was pretty easy to pick where the theme was. I had been coming off the Chief album, which was a big commercial success, and I just did not want to get boxed in. I did not want to be the center of country music. We had just won album of the year at the CMA Awards, and we’re in all these award categories we had never been in before, and I was very, very uncomfortable in that spot. I started hearing people say they knew the style I was going to be and comparing me to other people. And it started driving me nuts, because I don’t want to be a style. I don’t want to be that thing.

So The Outsiders was me just going musically crazy. It’s a little schizophrenic. It’s a little nutty. But that’s what it was supposed to be. Whether it’s everybody’s cup of tea or not, that was me getting that out of my system to some extent. I was trying to do that. So it had a thing. It was preconceived.

Mr. Misunderstood wasn’t. It was just music broken down to its core. And we kept it that way with the way we distributed it. We did the same thing with the tour. There were no bells and whistles to this tour. It was lights, sound and us.

Did you get any pushback from your label on how the album was released?

There’s a number of things that we’ve done that I think, if we had asked them or we had said, “What do you think?,” we wouldn’t have got a favorable response. That includes the surprise release of Mr. Misunderstood -- which included the purchase of a pressing plant in Germany to get the album printed early and secretly shipped to members of the fan club.

[Universal Music Group Nashville chairman/CEO] Mike Dungan at one point said, “This is not the way we would have released an Eric Church record, but we trust him.” That’s how this whole thing happened. I didn't need an album. I didn't want an album. We had just come off tour. I was going to take some time off. And then all of a sudden -- bam! -- this album fell out.

It’s part of the reason that I’m having a little bit of a harder time right now, just getting back to where I’m totally decompressed and back to where I can start thinking about music.

One of the songs that didn't make Mr. Misunderstood but has turned up on YouTube is “Old Testament Me.” Why do you think that song resonates with so many people?

As a husband and a dad, there’s the New Testament, turn-the-other-cheek mentality, and then there’s the Old Testament way of thinking, which is saying, “Hey, if you mess with me, you’re going to get hurt.”

I think we carry both. You don’t have to roll over and be weak. There’s so much going on in the world, with the rise in terrorism and violence. I didn't like the way that I think a lot of people were portraying religion ... that it made you soft. You were weak. If they do something to you, you have to walk away.

I’m conflicted, because I don’t really believe that. I believe you still have to protect yourself and your family. I think many people feel the same way, especially in our country. When you get poked really hard, you’re torn between your beliefs and how you should respond to that. I was thinking, too, about the bullying element, and all this extra-parenting bullshit. I get the conflict, and that’s what I was writing about. I get it. Especially being a parent with kids.

Do you find parenting challenging? 

A 5-year-old and a 2-year-old are always going to have their challenges. But yeah, I do OK with it. They’re with me on tour, and that is such a big thing, because I’ve been around long enough to see these artists that check out for periods of their life. I feel like it becomes harder for them to be a parent or to feel like they’re in control of their life when they’re checking in and checking out.

So for me, as hard as it has been at times, logistically it’s just something my wife and I have always decided we had to do. The Mr. Misunderstood album does not happen if my kids aren’t out on the road with me or I don’t have a relationship with them, because you can hear it in the album. Because that’s a part of my life; it’s really easy for me to walk out on that stage and feel pretty comfortable when I sing that stuff, because I’ve lived it. I’ve been there. I’m in it.

Let’s talk about the scalpers. You took a lot of tickets out of the hands of scalpers on this tour. Are you happy with the results?

I hate that scalping exists. I wish artists didn't have to [fight] it individually. I wish it was more collective. But I don’t think it ever will be. The only way it’ll ever be solved is if every person cares enough individually to make it incredibly hard to scalp tickets. And if everybody does that, it’ll make it collectively harder.

We’re very happy with how our [anti-scalping efforts] turned out, because we were able to look back and really dissect it. Did we keep every scalper out of the building? Hell no. But what we did do was we made it very hard for them to get the prime tickets.

Do you think that by having reasonably low-priced tickets, you left too much money on the table?

I don’t want to charge $450. What we did, that the scalpers didn't think we would do, is stay vigilant on how to identify them, and then we would just cancel [their] tickets. We had no shame. 

By and large, I think it was a huge success. I’ll be able to tell you at the next tour how much we’ve deterred them. But it won’t change the way we’re going to approach every tour: making sure that they’re enemy No. 1, and with me they always will be.

You closed this latest tour with two nights at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena that set an attendance record for the building. Now you’re up in the mountains and chilling out. What’s next for Eric Church?

I’ve been thinking about that. I don’t have answers yet. That’s what I’m here to think about, honestly.

When I left the final Nashville show, my manager told me to take some time to process everything. We just finished the tour with these two record-breaking shows, and there were fans in the audience holding signs that said, “Twenty-three shows this tour,” “Ten shows this tour.”

Every night, they’ll hand me scarves, American flag scarves [like those] in the “Springsteen” video. I ended up wearing them. My entire dressing room’s decorated with them. That final night of the tour in Nashville, the whole [audience] had gotten either American flag scarves or they had made American flags. And everybody in the place held them up. I didn't know about it. The fans had communicated all this among themselves. So it was just such an emotional thing to get to the end of the tour and to see these people, as a thank you to me, do something like that among 19,000 people at Bridgestone Arena. It just was mind-blowing.

We get in the dressing room [afterward], and John [Peets] is talking to me. “I just want you to know that I’ve never seen [anything like] this before,” he says. He goes, “You need to go away and process this. You need to think about what it meant. What it means. What’s next.”

I’m trying to figure out the answer to that question: Is there anything else that I haven’t done? And, more importantly, what do I want to do next? I currently have nothing. I’m still just trying to process everything. 

Louis Messina Nutures Church's Live Drive

When Eric Church’s Holdin’ My Own Tour rolled into town, concert promoter Louis Messina had to have the T-shirt talk with the locals.

“Eric sold this shirt that read ‘Eric Fucking Church,’ ” says Messina, “and the building managers would all bitch and moan about selling the shirt,” disapproving of its expletive.

“I would just tell them, ‘If you want Eric to play here again, you better just sell the damn shirt,’ ” says Messina of the top-selling item of tour merchandise, which sells for $30. “They’d sell the shirt -- and then later pat me on the back for moving so much merch.”

To say nothing of moving so many tickets. Church sold 930,000 seats on his just-concluded tour, says Messina, whose Messina Touring Group also has promoted Taylor Swift, George Strait, Ed Sheeran and Kenny Chesney. Messina, 70, is a veteran tour promoter who cut his teeth in the concert business with Pace Concerts in Houston. By 2001, he had launched his own company, which later became partnered with AEG Presents.

Messina first met Church when the singer opened stadium shows on Chesney’s 2013 No Shoes Nation Tour. “Eric once told me, ‘Louis, you know I never thought I’d enjoy playing stadiums. But is there anything bigger than a stadium?’  I thought to myself, ‘OK, this is my kind of guy.’ I love artists with vision.”

Jay Williams, Church’s agent at William Morris Endeavor, echoes Messina. “It all starts with Eric’s vision,” he says of the singer’s touring success. He, Messina and manager John Peets at Q Prime South “work collaboratively to make sure Eric has the best chance to win each night.” (Williams notes he works closely with Bridget Bauer at Messina Touring Group; both were assistants together at WME two decades ago. “So it’s fun to get to work with her on this.”)

After Church unveiled his album Mr. Misunderstood as a surprise in late 2015, Messina knew he was working with an artist who didn't follow typical album release schedules or touring cycles, and who had a unique sense of how he wanted to present his craft.

“His music is going to come out when it comes out; it’s going to be the songs that he wants to put out and not those selected for him,” says Messina. “That’s why he called it the Holdin’ My Own Tour.”

During shows that ran three-and-a-half hours, with no opening act, Church typically played some 37 songs nightly from his catalog of five studio albums. The six-month tour reached 38 states and six Canadian provinces, with stops at every major arena in North America, including Staples Center in Los Angeles, Madison Square Garden in New York and Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

“There’s something special that happens each night,” says Messina of Church’s live shows. “You can feel this groundswell in the audience -- each night was bigger than the night before. As the tour went on, the intensity of the show and the crowd only grew.”

The tour wrapped in Nashville with two nights at Bridgestone Arena, “our adopted hometown venue,” says Messina. “Kenny showed up as a friend and a fan. He asked if Eric wanted him to come onstage, and Eric said, ‘Nah, I don’t want you to have to work tonight, just enjoy yourself.’ And so Kenny just sat on the side of the stage and watched the show from beginning to end.“    

Church Gives Back Through Chief Cares

Church’s charity, funded by premium tickets, aids humanitarian work at home and abroad

By late August 2014, Eric Church’s status as one of country’s superstars was secure. After the breakthrough of his 2011 album, Chief, his new release The Outsiders had reached No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart; his latest single, “Cold One,” had reached No. 21 on Hot Country Songs; and he had sold 4.2 million albums to date, according to Nielsen Music.

For Church, it was time to give back. On Aug. 21, 2014, the singer and his wife, former music publisher Katherine Blasingame, announced the launch of their charity, Chief Cares, to support an array of humanitarian organizations in the United States and worldwide.

Rather than incur the operating costs of a stand-alone charity, Chief Cares would be administered by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, which has served Tennessee and Kentucky for the past 25 years. The foundation continues to field grant requests on behalf of Chief Cares. (Although Church is a native of North Carolina, he came to Tennessee to sign his first record deal in Nashville in 2005.)

Church, who was raised in the Christian faith, is not a newcomer to philanthropy. For five years before founding Chief Cares, he and Blasingame had privately supported the Christian organization Genesis Global Ministries, whose initiatives included delivering aid to Haiti, starting an orphanage in Nepal and supporting students in Sri Lanka.

Chief Cares is funded by the sale of premium seats to  Church’s concerts. In addition to Genesis Global, it helps Mercy Multiplied, which assists disadvantaged young women; the Nashville Humane Association; the Mason G. Smoak Foundation, which promotes education and environmentalism; the Miller Harris Foundation, which helps children with asthma; and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Last October, the couple returned to Church’s home state to attend the JDRF gala in Charlotte, which was honoring his parents, Ken and Rita Church. Dressed in a business suit and forgoing his ever-present sunglasses, Church was joined by his wife as he presented a check for $1 million to JDRF, in honor of his mother and her battle with Type 1 diabetes. The gift, noted Church, was the largest donation to date by Chief Cares.    -- Thom Duffy

This article originally appeared in the August 5 issue of Billboard.