Eric Church on His New Music, Touring Again, and a Social Reckoning in Country | The RS Interview
[Captions are auto-generated] Eric Church is one of country music's most against the grain performance. He launched his career with nonstop small venue touring instead of the typical Nashville radio hit. In 2009, he blew up the idea, the classic country tour, by ditching opening acts and playing three hour gigs. He is country music's middle finger and his fans love him for it. I'm Rolling Stone country editor Joseph Hudak for the Rolling Stone interview. I talked to church about
his new album, Heart and Soul Social Changes in Country Music and why he thinks he'll be back on stage in the fall. How's Gornstein going for you now? Like, where are you now mentally compared to last year at this time? I miss playing. I think I think like everybody, at least specifically for me, I had had a hard few years anyway coming in to this. I think music for me and being on stage was a lot of therapy and a lot of ways to be out there. So I think I think that's been the biggest thing I've missed is just I mean, I played music since I was on stage, somewhat professionally, getting paid since I was 19 or 20 years old.
So I've been doing I've been doing it longer than I've been doing something else. So it's been hard not to have those moments with the crowd. Well, man, I'm so excited to talk to you. It's been a
hell of a long time and this record is really revealed some some gems and secrets to me. So I'm looking OK, diving into it. So what I want to start with, though, is like let's go back to the outsiders. The sound and the vibe of the outsiders and to Mr Misunderstood could not have been more different. And I think that you found a new sound and a new style of songwriting, even a more focused songwriting, a more personal songwriting with Misunderstood.
That was 2015, the heart and soul taken as a whole. And let's talk about that as a whole. Right now, it feels like the natural evolution of that.
So how do you how does the Eric Church, Mr. Misunderstood, compare to the one who wrote and recorded Heart and Soul? Starting with your first part of your question? There was an outsider's was a lot of bombast. I felt like outsiders was a rebellion record that was trying to get away from the guy that had just made the chief album.
And it had a lot of success and had been boxed in. And a lot of ways I felt like outsiders. Was the creativity run amuck where you have a person going? I do not I do not want to be who you want me to be.
Yeah, right. And I think Mr. Steele was the more organic return to the singer songwriter part of that, the storytelling part of that. What's interesting to me.
As as we come in to heart, so. I'm still having a hard time talking about what I think heart and so is because I didn't fund and set out to make art. And so I think a lot of artists and songwriters, they they say, I'm going to go make this album. This is where I am at the time. This is what I'm going to do.
That didn't happen here. This was the album made me I didn't make the album. And every day I didn't know what that song was. I didn't know what was going to happen that night. I didn't know if we were going to strike out.
And then the best part of it is when that was over with. I do it again the next day and at the end of the next day, I couldn't remember what we did day one, I had no clue what the damn song was. So it was one of those wild things where we let whatever was going to happen happened. We didn't choke anything out.
We put everybody in a room. I mean, I still remember there was one of the early songs we recorded. We brought some guitar, a studio guy from Nashville, because I wanted I wanted things to be uncomfortable for my band. Right. Just to just to have some tension. Tensions.
Great. And he sat down and I just written this song three hours before and he said, well, do you think the guitar part goes like this? I said, Rob, I don't know what the fuck the guitar is brand new, this I've not even heard a guitar part yet. What are you talking about? He kind of laughed. He said, I forgot. Normally you've listened to songs thousand times and you have said, I have.
Wherever it goes, it goes. Let's chase it and see what happens. So I think for the heart and soul, the writing part is the purest writing I've done because it was unedited and nobody got to sit there and put it to a committee and go, wow, how about a verse here? How about we do this here? I would say the same thing for Joyce.
There there's no there's nobody else to run it by it, we're just in the room what feels good, what sounds good, and I don't know that I've ever made a record that it was that that same day that you go still is good. Is this right? I don't know. Let's do it. I mean, we would kind of go that route. It's almost like a Rolling Stones exile on Main Street template.
Yeah. Where you hold up. And for people who don't know, you took the band, you took Jois, your producer, you took an army of songwriters to North Carolina in January of twenty twenty, is that right? And wrote and recorded a song a day, if not more than one a day. Right. Right. We at least at least that one day we wrote it. Yeah.
You said to go back to the Desperate Man album, which is the album that preceded this. You said that you felt too comfortable making desperate man. What did you mean by that? And is that basically what prompted this this North Carolinian exile? This way, I would say it from a fat and happy. I felt like we came off of an arena tour, sold out shows, and we show up in the studio and I don't know, everybody's kind of we're I guess we're going to make a record. We're going to do it again. There was no sense of urgency. There was no danger.
There was no I felt like the band was just kind of there. And I don't know. The whole thing to me was that there was nothing against people get mad when I say this because I love the desperate man, Al.
Has nothing to do with what the end product was. I'm telling people what the process was and the process was difficult to get to that point, we overcut more than we ever could. I mean, we had six or seven songs that just didn't make the album or we'd strike out. I mean, the whole thing was it was a grind the way most artists deal with that. Is you have to replace your producer, you start changing out your band members, you start changing everything to try to get that thing that we were trying to get back to, not Amadei, instead of doing that was to this North Carolina do where I take Jay out of his element now sticking in an element that's never had a studio in it.
I take the band and I put them in a competitive situation with other people. And then for myself, I went there with I had four or five song ideas coming in to day one and I exhausted them quickly. So when we got to like day seven, day eight, I didn't know what the next day was going to be.
It got kind of manic where I would sit there and go, fuck, what's tomorrow? What is tomorrow, what are we going to write tomorrow and what we're going to do. And I think that. I don't know, man, it is turned into the.
It turned into the coolest thing, and I just felt musically know, I think 90 percent of it was. I was a fan. I mean, I was I was reacting to the moment, I didn't think about it. There was no thought. We just that that day we committed to that song, that was the day. And then it was a.
And you forgot about it, and the next day you committed to that song and at the end the process, when I listen back, I remember just going through the the one of the playbacks and we were having a good time and drinking and going, oh, God, I can't believe we did this. And he played he was part of the night and he said he said, I'm going to play hard at night. And I went, What's that? Like that is part of the night, I said, I don't know what that is. So what song is that? And he played it. And I was like,
oh, crap. I remember that now. I but all those things, I didn't I didn't have a chance to get married any of this. I had no opinions on this stuff. I was almost like a vessel that these things work, food, you know, that's all I was I was an open media and I just let the I let these things just move through me. I didn't I didn't
have passionate opinions about any of. It's funny you say that, because when you started releasing songs from this right before the album was even announced, no one knew what you were doing. Is it an album you were just hidden out hiding out in North Carolina, writing songs, and then you started slowly putting them out. And when I heard them, I was like, man, what is he doing? Or are these, like demos that he's not? And I don't mean that. And like, they just sounded so rootsy. They sounded like you were just coming up with that.
But when I listen to the album and I'm going to keep saying the album, even though it's three components. Yeah. When I listen to it as an album, it made sense to me.
Everything flowed the way it did. Like what I heard bad mouthed trucker the first time. I was, like, really excited for it, and I it didn't hit me until I heard it in the context of the album.
What that is because, you know, it's a three to three disc, three LP record. Right. Or I guess five LP when comes down to it, right.
Yeah, I think that I think that that's interesting. You say that, but yeah, you're right. I mean and the reason it sounds that way is kind of like the you know, the like the band and Big Pink or what it was, it was made it's made in a place that no record records never been made there. So it did have a sound. It does not sound like our other albums.
It does not sound like what we've done before. The drum sounds are different, the guitar sounds are different. The vocals are different.
It's all just different because we've never been in that environment. And I think I think that's what makes it have some unity. When you keep calling it one project, I get it has unity in that way. The thing that made it three projects for me was the song grouped together differently. You can't put out a
twenty five song album and I couldn't find. I could find a double out, but I couldn't find what you do then I couldn't find where Raybans went. I couldn't figure out where life with me. When I could figure out
where Lone Wolf went. I'm still not sure where Lone go. So it's just it's that thing where. I couldn't get those on hard or so hard is interesting because what I love about the project is there's a ton of songs that have heart and people normally here's what would happen. I would go through a songwriting panel about my group that I use. They would go, well, we can't we can only have one arsenal.
But I was right writing every day, it was in my head, it was maybe it's a car, some freedom. So it was it was a daily deal. So you're getting what's in here real time. So that's why there's hard on far harder than I never break heart.
It's why you're you're getting that all over the album. Yeah. Yeah. So at the end, that's I got to ask a question earlier.
Heart and soul. And I said, well, as I listen back, I didn't have heart soul, but as I listen back to trying to group these things, what are these parts? Pretty obvious. It just kind of said, OK, what if this is.
Part and didn't have anything else, and that's kind of once they started grouping up is when it's one I truly saw the project before that I was trying to. I love the recordings. I love what it was. I didn't know what it was. I couldn't figure out what is this 15 song album which I hate doing either. I think I think a listening experience should be condensed and this is what it is and it's meant to be done.
And then you move to the next one. And I think that's where we came up with the the three No. Three albums. Were there any songs that you brought to the table already in your mind? Fleshed out? I think Raybans through my Raybans was one that I think you started that before you went to North. I did, yeah. Tell me a bit about that. That was kind of inspired by the Las Vegas shooting. Right? Everybody's got everybody say.
It was an older, kind of an older song that I hadn't totally reworked it, but it was it was in my my head. And honestly, this is what's great about going into a process like that. That song happened on a day that the song I was going that I tried to write didn't make it struck out and I happened to be there. Luke Laird was one of the writers that I wrote that was he was there that day. And the song that we
have been trying to get to that session that night sucked. And we didn't get it. There just wasn't right. Didn't meet it, didn't meet the bar of the project.
And as we were going into it, I said, screw it, let's let's let's let me throw something at you. Let's go back and revisit Raybans. And we started talking about it, reworked it and redid it and then cut it that night.
So because, you know, because we struck out on another song, that song kind of found its way that the song that I had coming in because I wrote it by myself was Hard on Fire was the first song we recorded, and I wanted to get us off on a good foot. So I had most of that one coming into the project. And then from there I had some pieces or I had a title here or there. And I can't I cannot I cannot underestimate how important Kacie better was to this project. MVP of the whole deal for me, because he was coming off a real tragic time in his life and some skill and he was able to come up there and I believe he got there was a therapy element for all of us.
It is in the mountains. And and I think Casey got a lot of therapy and just found some amazing things. He said to me probably halfway through. He said, I just want to thank you for restoring my faith in the reason I got into music. He said, we're getting to do what I've always wanted to do.
This is what you dream of as a songwriter, as a musician, you get to see your creation come to life. In real time, while you're there, and I agree with that some, I think that was what made this a special project. There's a lot of heartland rock to this record, right? I mean, people heard some Mellencamp, all of this kind of sounds. He's very rootsy sounds. But for me, church here's what I hear. I hear meatloaf.
I hear a rock opera. And those first three songs on the record are the hard part of the night is rock opera, is rock opera. It's Russian roulette is rock and roll. You know, what gets me is so funny. You say that.
And Joe, this is why you piss me off sometimes. That's a great fit. I said I said there's a part on part of the night where it goes to still be eating out of and that is the it's in J goes we can't do all those hits. I said, dude, it's meatloaf, let's do it. And I got into the mic and it was it's that, it's overdramatic. It's over passion. It's those things.
But man, it's also a little Neil Diamond in there. There's a little bit of like, you know, there's some Neil Diamond going on, I love it. You're dead. You're dead, right? It was it was over the top in places.
But it never felt. Ron, and I think that's the thing that's that's all I'll say is if I think if we analyze it and we took part of the night and we brought it back and put it through the normal channels, we would have got to the end and said, let's cut our own fire. You know, that's what made this difference is we didn't do that.
It was this is what we wrote today. And this is I think let's commit ourselves to this, let's have fun with this and let's let's do it. And I don't know, I've never made an album that way. It's all I knew going in on every one of my albums that the song we were bringing to the board that night was a damn good song. And it's been looked at and it was better than the nine other ones that I did not know that this time.
And so I think in a way, you commit a little bit harder to the defense of that song. You want it to be. You go harder at the vocal, you go harder at the guitar.
And what I loved is that after a couple of days, the band joined Rity. I mean, they everybody we had a true army there a few days and they were you know, they knew what we were trying to do and they understood the specialness of it and the uniqueness of it. And then they committed they committed to it. I'm going to linger on Russian roulette for one minute because that Bridgman, when you go into the falsetto and it's. Yeah. And then there's a lyrical illusion, which is the flip side of your song, Springsteen, where you say I need a melody without or without a memory.
Yeah, so you're trying to break that bond, the mental bond between the music and the and the melody, but that bridge is when it hit me with the me love stuff, particularly there. Like I thought, I let myself thinking it and heart of the night. But when it got to Russian roulette and then I started thinking, like Joanna Cotten, she's your Karla DeVito or Alan Foley. Yeah. Yeah, right.
Yeah. She joins Joyce's you're Todd Rundgren, at least for those three songs, you know. So anyway, I'm glad to hear you say that. Now you sit right. And I don't know how I don't know what people think of that. I don't really give a shit.
But I just thought it was kind of what it was the way that kind of worked out. I said that on the mike is just funny. I said maybe and I said I said we were going to do it. We got to commit to it.
There's no half meatloaf either doing it, no half loaf meatloaf. So I said we are going to where going to go to that moment. And we did. I mean we kind of went that place and it was fun for me to get into. There's some vocals on here that are a little more in character, I guess, where I could commit to things I didn't I don't know, I went a little break it kind of guy. There's some stuff on the counter that I'm doing, some vocal things that are almost I'm playing around a little, but having fun.
I'm doing some things that are a little more in character than just me going out and trying to sing my song. And I think that was kind of fun to play with a microphone that way. That's interesting, because I go back to chief the chief record, one of the very first times you and I spoke and I remember we talked about the hat and the glasses and how it was like you channeling your Alice Cooper, right. Instead of the mascara, you had the hat and the glasses.
And so you even now this far into your career, you still have that sense of, you know, that there's a character that you can't pull out when you need it or play or multiple characters. Right. There's a way that you just don't have to just go out and be so self-conscious that, well, I can't sing that, because what if people hear it? And I think a lot of music is, you know, try it and sing it and you go falsetto. And I think I could play around more with this album than than other albums. I wasn't sitting up there
thinking, well, this won't be this is cool or this is not cool. But see, that's what makes it cool is when you're not when you're not sitting there going, I hope I can do this. And I don't I'm not thinking about the prism of how people look at it. I'm just doing it and I'm letting it. I mean, it was the
most organic, real thing that you can do in music is to write a song on the same day you record it. And overall, I mean, we had a we had two or three songs it. We caught that didn't make either either of the three projects, but overall we did we did pretty well for for doing what we tried to do touring. You have talked about a return to touring. You've teased this.
What do you have in mind? You've obviously been someone who's really, really kind of reimagined touring in the country landscape. You know, the three hour show is the intermission. No opening acts. Some of your peers, Miranda Lambert, Thomas, Rhett, are doing some indoor gigs in Texas. Is that something you consider? What is your vision for how we all get back on the shows, whether the club, a field or an arena? Right. I think I think it starts
with me, to be honest. I think it starts with vaccinations. That is critical. I've said to everybody, listen, I've been in every meeting, every phone call.
I've looked at this every way you can look at this. And the easiest way, the fastest way for us to get back is not vaccines, is vaccination. This needles in arms. And I'm a big proponent of that. I just think that that's the best way for me to then have a working knowledge of the environment that we're in because the environment keeps changing. I do think we're winning. I think that, you know, we're going to continue there's going to be festivals at play this summer at capacity, it's going to happen in the United States.
Yes. Yes, they will happen, I think, once the vaccine is fully available. I believe we will we're going to play in the fall and the issue is going to be the municipalities and how do you do that? And I don't know. I'm not sure that's a 50 state deal. That's that's that's the biggest challenge. It has been the most challenge. I mean, for everybody,
this has been the most challenging thing by a mile that I've ever seen. Because you don't need a plan. You need a plan. And fifty to contingency plans because it's a moving target. But I do believe we're going to be one of the first people that are going to do that in music. I think a lot of people kind
of punted into twenty two and an opportunity is going to be good. But I think we'll, I think will play in the fall. I think we'll play in arenas in the fall. I think we'll play capacity. And so I think that a lot of that depends on vaccinations. A lot of that depends on if these numbers continue improving.
But I anticipate that they will encourage anyone who can to get the vaccine. It's common sense to me. It's not very hard.
I'm not pro vaccine. I'm not ActiveX. I read everything. I'm telling you the fastest way for me to strap on a guitar and have people there that I can shake a hand with and jump in a pit with is a vaccination.
So we're kind of on the topic of some of some social things here, I guess. And so there is an issue that dominated country music this year, and that is social justice and racial recognition. Does it feel like country music? Does it feel like the genre is at an inflection point, a turning point? Yeah, maybe. Yeah. And I don't I think that's
great. I mean, I think that something that surprised me. Even before a lot of the social and racial stuff in country music was the female challenge that we've had now, they've white, you know, male country artist. And I don't know that I totally realized how hard it's been. I think maybe maybe you do,
but I'm not a program director. I'm not a I don't know, I'm not in those chairs that a lot of those a lot of the females have to go through. So I think that was an out and out experience before we've dealt with the racial thing is just diversity and country music, just the overall diversity. And here's what here's what I historically, diversity is always the best thing for the music.
Always, no matter what genre that diversity usually leads to, some break through things. That's what you want. That's what you're trying to inspire. And I think it's great for country music. I do think we're at a pivotal
moment. I think it's a moment that's been coming for a long time, and I think it's a healthy moment. My biggest thing would be there everyone is. Let's just let's talk about it. Let's continue to have the dialog. Talking is just fine.
I feel like we're in the same place. The country's in it. I think that we represent what I believe we as a country music we represent in America and a lot of ways. And we're having a lot of the same conversations about the same stuff. The important thing is we continue to move the dialog and we continue to have those conversations.
And I can tell you. That it was all my mind when I walked to the mat at the Super Bowl, this thing with an African-American or Lisa, what was going on in our format? It was all in the fact that it's all amama means that we probably got a lot of things to address in our I did it sting when you saw the Morgan and tape, know that he cut one of your song quitting. Quitting time. Yeah.
I mean, I think I mean, I think the biggest thing is that it was a heartbreaking deal that you just have to tough it to just the artwork is the best thing I say. I mean, it was a heartbreaking deal for me. And, you know, I think Morgan's got to work on Morgan now and where that goes. But I think I think
that's something I hope he does and anticipate he'll do. I don't I think that as a format, though, we just we just have to continue to strive. To be better in that regard, and I think I think all that honestly, I think it can end up being a really healthy thing for the format.
That is, we have these conversations going forward. It's a good thing for all of us. You mentioned the women in country music, too.
Would you? Have you been writing with women female writers? Well, Joanna, I mean, I work a lot with Joanna, so we are still I'm going to make a Joanna Gotan record one day. I'm going to blow people's mind. I'll still be. I've written with a number of one over time. And I guess the challenge there is I guess I just maybe it's naivete, but I didn't realize that from a chart standpoint or program director standpoint or all that stuff until this is over the last couple of years, I just didn't know that that was there until all the stuff started and said.
So I think a lot of stuff that it's healthy for country music is there's a lot of different ways now to be heard. Initially, radio was your main megaphone. It's still a big megaphone, but it's not it's not the only megaphone, and I think that's going to change some of these ways that we whether it be diversity or just is different music styles, you know, they can come in and and make a leave an imprint on the format and move us move us forward. That's how it's been for
me. I mean. You know, you can pray tell. I mean, when stick that in your country song, the first thing I mean, come on, I'm trying to I knew that wasn't going to be number one, OK? But I'm trying I'm trying to move the form. I mean, that's the way I look at this is every project we have. I'm trying to move us in a
direction, trying to move the dial, trying to move the needle. And I feel like that we've always done that in some way, shape or form. Yeah, we've had no ones.
And I kind of know when I've got too close to the flame and I got to back up just a little bit. But I think that I think that's part of just trying to continue to within the parameters that I have country music to move the whole format forward in twenty eighteen and the cover story in Rolling Stone, you said, quote, We don't talk to each other enough. We dig in, we don't listen and we don't talk. You feel that we've gotten better or worse at that? Worse. I mean, I think I think Kobe's made a lot worse just because without concerts, without sporting events, everything has been about what divides us as as a as a society.
Which which side are you on this side or this side? And that's insane to me. It's asinine because when I play a concert, those 20 thousand feet. But what are they are they don't have a side.
They got their arm around the guy beside them and they're singing a song or they're at a sporting event. They don't have a song. They're cheering for the team.
When you go to Vegas, when you go to a barbecue, the sad part, the tribalism is the most dangerous thing. And because of covid, there's not been these little things along the way that have brought us what what unites us versus what divides us. And that's what to me, music. It's critical, I know we're planning to go in twenty one, we may be one of the first that we're aggressive, that's aggressive. I got to make it happen, and I feel like I got to make it happen because I think it's it's that crucial to the overall sentiment of what society is going through, which is we need this. I need this.
But they fans and I'd agree with you, I think the isolation of covid and everyone has been finding an outlet via social media, which is, as we know, not the best dangerous, dangerous, not the best barometer of what reality is. So, yeah, I think you're right. I mean, I think we all need that human interaction to go back to the Super Bowl for a second. Was it as nerve wracking as they say? Yes, yes. Yes. More, more.
I mean, at first, was there a couple of things going to I tell you a back story. It is pretty good back story. So I was already a little bit nervous. And because that's a big it's a big moment.
And then you then you have like I played shows for big crowds. So they wouldn't that. In a show, if you come out and you have some nerves, you got four or five songs, you kind of work them off and you're in your group, they anthems different anthem that the day we rehearse.
So we rehearsed. We got Saturday off. So we rehearsed on Friday on the field. And they had a video that they played and I made the mistake of looking at the video and it was like all these patriotic images that soldiers and then the the the drum corps comes up color, color, guard, and they come up and they were doing their deal. And one of the soldiers
kind of gave me it right before we started rehearsal rehearsal. And he gave me this. And it almost couldn't sing, and I told Catherine after that, my wife, I said, I can't if you see me, stared at my feet the night of the Super Bowl because I can't look at what's going on around me. I have to kind of get it back. So that night we come in, that Super Bowl night, we come in the tunnel early. I get you. They're like two and a half hours for you. I see.
So you get down there. The color guard was there and they they were praying. And I came up in the head first and said, hey, they want to say hello. And I said, sure.
And I woke up and they finished their prayer. One of the Marines, African-American Mary. And he turned around and he first of all, I don't need any more nerves, and he turned around, he said permission to shake your hands or I have not had a job and I had a handshake.
And as covid stopped and I went. It is there that he took his white glove off, I keep in mind we've been tested to death, so this is not unsafe. He took his wife off. He shook my hand, and then they all did.
So all 15 of them pulled off there. And I shook every hand. And then I walked in, and that's when it realized to me that it's it's about more than just. What this means to me or a career or whatever that shit is, it's about. The country, it's about those people, it's about the the format. I felt like, you know, we needed to represent the format in that moment and it just added to all the the energy and the emotion of it. I felt I felt every
every ounce of that. Yeah. Maybe halftime show next would be something. You're going to be forty four in May, I believe.
Forty four. Yeah. You got it. And you had a lot of dangerous blood clot and I think twenty eighteen are right around. Yeah. How are you feeling right now. And I mean that in terms of what's motivating you. I mean what as we, as we see hopefully this light at the end of the tunnel, what's, what's pushing you right now, getting back on stage and getting us back to normalcy? I may be dramatic in this, but is I is I look at everything around the country.
I believe what I said at the CMA Awards speech. I believe music is going to be the thing that's going to save us all because it always has. You go back to Roman times, and it was about the painters, it was about the writers. It was about the bohemians that had their finger on the pulse of what was going on. And I feel like that we're in we're in unprecedented times.
I mean, this has never, never happened. People talk about nineteen eighteen, but I always throw back at them is how many tours and acts were national acts in nineteen eighty. Who tried to tour. They weren't arenas the tour.
So this is an unprecedented nobody's ever tried to do what we're all trying to do to get everybody back in places. And it is complicated and it is hard, but I believe it's absolutely worth the effort. And somebody asked me why twenty, twenty one. Why not just wait. I said, because I don't think we can wait. I think it's too important to wait. I think we got to try.
We got to try to do this. And I believe we can. So that's where I'm holding out hope. And that's what I'm just trying to get the guitar on again and start to put back together all the pieces that are broken.