When Eric Church walked offstage at CMA Fest in June, he had no idea how polarizing the reaction would be to the set he had just performed. Some fans, perhaps expecting a show of note-for-note hits, were confused by Church’s jammy, soulful readings of singles, deep cuts, and even a Little Feat cover for good measure; others were irate.
Church says he was shocked.
“I was shocked because I played the show that I went out there to play,” he tells Rolling Stone at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, where he’s just toured his new spotlight exhibit, Eric Church: Country Heart, Restless Soul, for the first time. “We had a timeslot and I went out there to play that slot and try to show a little bit, a peek, as to what I was working on for this tour. I’m not going to give everything, but I’m going to give a little peek of what this could be. And there were a couple of production things that I was not responsible for — when the lights went up [at the end of the set], that wasn’t me. But for what I went to do, it was fast and hard. And the shows are that way.”
The seven-song CMA Fest set challenged fans with different arrangements of hits like “Drink in My Hand” and “Cold One,” along with a cover of the Little Feat cocaine anthem “Sailin’ Shoes.” Church says he wanted to mix things up.
“All the songs are different. All the songs were changed. It was punchy. I didn’t play ‘Springsteen,’ because I have a new version of ‘Springsteen,’” he says of his 2012 chart-topper. “You’ve got to come to a show and see it.”
Since its launch in Milwaukee last month, Church’s Outsiders Revival Tour of amphitheaters — a first for the North Carolina native — has teed up a set list that leans heavy on his 2021 triple effort, Heart & Soul, and 2018’s Desperate Man. Church says he was unable to properly explore those albums on his 2021 Gather Again Tour.
“The last tour was maybe my least favorite, because of Covid weirdness every night. I never got to lean into the Desperate Man album and Heart & Soul. This time, we changed that. Most of [the set] is those two albums,” he says. “If you’re coming to hear ‘Talladega’ and ‘Record Year,’ you ain’t gonna hear them. There are a ton of songs people are leaving going, ‘He didn’t play his hits.’ And, no, we didn’t.”
But what he has done is something that most major country tours tend to shy away from: reinterpreting songs by emphasizing musical exploration. His current tour features 12 musicians joining him onstage, including a horn section. In fact, it’s similar to what Bruce Springsteen did with his Seeger Sessions Band and tour: playing amphitheaters with a large band, eschewing the hits. “That’s a great parallel,” Church says of the comparison to Springsteen, whose presence looms large in Church’s new Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit.
One of the most personal items is a handwritten note that Springsteen wrote to Church after hearing his nostalgic song titled after the New Jersey hero. “Hey Eric,” it reads in part, “my family and I got a big kick out of ‘Springsteen’ (and a good song too!).’”
“Seeing the Springsteen letter, that was really cool,” Church says. But the most moving artifacts, he says, are the ones that include photos of his brother Brandon, who died in 2018 at 36. He says he’ll pay tribute to him, and victims of the Route 91 festival shooting in Las Vegas, next year when he opens his new Nashville bar, Chief’s, with a string of intimate, solo shows in the venue’s theater. (A specific opening date has not yet been announced.)
“I want to do a show that talks about Vegas. It talks about my brother. It talks about things in my life. I’m not going down there to play ‘Drink in My Hand.’ It’s going to be stuff that’s very raw, very real, and it’s just me onstage,” he says. “It’ll be Church on Broadway.”
He acknowledges yet another Springsteen parallel and says when he and his wife attended a performance of Springsteen on Broadway in New York, he had an awakening.
“He talked about all the stuff he had sang about and said, ‘I didn’t do any of that. I’m a fraud.’ I thought it was one of the most raw and honest moments that I’ve ever seen,” Church says. “It was a gut punch, and it landed. There’s very few artists that will admit that. And I thought that was fantastic.”
Eric Church: Country Heart, Restless Soul runs through June 2024 at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville. Church is also this year’s Artist-in-Residence and will perform two special shows in the Hall’s CMA Theatre in August — shows that, just like his Outsiders Revival Tour, will likely be different from anything he’s done before.
“This tour won’t be replicated,” says Church, who has dates in Cincinnati and St. Louis this weekend. “Once it’s done, we won’t do this again.”