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.)