Eric Church on Ambitious Tour, Timely New Song and Political 'Anger'

"We have to be careful as a country," says the singer, who released the poignant "Kill a Word" as his new single

Eric Church performs onstage at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. Credit: Jensen Sutta

Eric Church has just wrapped up a sold-out two-night stand at Colorado's breathtaking Red Rocks Amphitheatre – and he's glad the gigs are over. Sprawling solo shows that touched on songs from his entire career, the concerts have taken their toll on the singer, who, after returning east, is holed up at his family's mountain retreat in his native North Carolina, far from Nashville's soupy summer.

"I'm still recovering from Red Rocks. It was a hard few nights," he says by phone. "The acoustic shows for me are special things. I love doing them – I don't love doing them a lot."

Church will need to rest up. Prior to taking the stage for Night One at Red Rocks, he announced his 2017 Holdin' My Own Tour, a massive 60-plus-city run kicking off January 13th that will find him performing two sets with an intermission. He's aiming for three-hour shows and, to ensure that run-time, has done away with opening acts. To call the tour "ambitious" is selling it short. In a genre where some popular touring acts turn in 85-minute headlining sets, Church is throwing down the gauntlet.

He's also just released his most timely single yet: the anti-hate ballad "Kill a Word," off his surprise 2015 release Mr. Misunderstood. With a country consumed by violence and a bitter presidential election on the horizon, Church says it's the right time for the track. "I've never had a song that felt more meaningful and relevant than this one."

Why the decision to do two sets on the upcoming tour?

You've seen our show. We play a lot of album cuts, deep cuts. I'll give you an example. First night of Red Rocks, I didn't play "Springsteen," and didn't really feel compelled to. I didn't focus on "I gotta click off these five or six songs." We've been doing this a while where we try to play a lot of songs off a lot of different albums, regardless of whether they were a hit. And our fans, they dig it. It makes the show special.

You're even slotting an intermission, which is practically unheard of in country music.

I've been to shows when they've had intermissions, where you can go get beer, and you have your 20 minutes before the band comes back. What I loved about it is you can talk about the show with other fans: "They played this in the first set; I wonder what the second set is?" You're communing. It was a unique thing that I don't think is normally in country, and it's something that we're going to have to be conditioned to. But it gives us two chances as an opener, two chances at closing the show. And it gives us a wide chance to do things, like possibly keep it thematic, where the first set is [songs from] Sinners Like Me through Carolina, and then we come out and run Chief through Mr. Misunderstood. Stuff like that.

So why no opening acts?

It's going to be a three-hour show. And the only way to do that was to go by ourselves. Otherwise, it just doesn't work time-wise. It doesn’t work with the load-in, the load-out. We spent more money last year paying penalties, because we tried to play a three-hour show and we'd go till midnight. I get somewhat annoyed where it's gotta be a 100-minute [show]. It's hard to do, man. I wanted the freedom to play whatever show I wanted to play. And for the fans, who've been with us a long time, it'll be a pretty great night when we come to town and they know they're going to get a night full of us. We're going to work our ass off.

The Outsiders Tour was staged in the round. Will this be similar?

We're going to do it in the round, same thing. But The Outsiders was explorative and bombastic. It's not going to be the level of production; it's going to be more musical and will fit what the newest member, Mr. Misunderstood, is.

Will you create a set list?

I have pillars, so I know where we're starting and what's second, but I know that every night I can come in and have my spots that I can change. That's what we did on the Outsiders Tour; I had my time where I could go off-script. We'll leave room for it. We'll know that it's five or six songs and these five or six will be different. The pillars will stay there to give us a road map.

And you're committed to doing three hours? You certainly don't need to.

What makes me want to do it is we probably shouldn't be able to do it…[Laughs]. We really shouldn't have enough songs to where the show [can sustain]. If we didn't have "These Boots" or "Carolina" or the stuff that was never what would be called a "radio hit," we couldn't do three hours. It makes you want to go out and keep feeding that when you know it's a rare and special thing.

Do you think surprise-releasing Mr. Misunderstood minimized it as an album? Was it viewed as a "real" record or a stopover by the industry and even fans?

I don't know. The honest answer is I think they'll see that it's going to be a real record because of the commitment that we have to it. I think when we started this, we knew that would be a challenge. It started with the retail challenge. When you surprise people, the people you don't want to surprise are probably retail. [Laughs] But we did. There was no other way to do this thing. I think we went through a period there where people were wondering, "Is this a side project? Is this a creative whim?" Maybe even people at the label. But "Record Year" is a Number One song now. The record is continuing to gain legs. It's becoming a bigger thing. To date, I still say, it's the most important, because it connects what we did to what we're going to do. It's the bridge to where we're headed.

When you wrote "Kill a Word" with Luke Dick and your guitarist Jeff Hyde, the country wasn't as fractured as it is now. It feels prescient in hindsight.

That's it. If you would have asked me two months ago, I don't know that I would have said that's the next single. But there are times that the single gets chosen for you. And by that I mean what's happening in the world. I would feel disingenuous after writing the song, being a part of the song, to not put the song out at this time, with all the stuff that is going on: socially, police, politically. I mean, God almighty hell, the whole world. I've never had a song that felt more meaningful and relevant than this one. It's something that people need to hear.

It's a song that some country fans might be taken aback by. It's not a political song, but it does make you think.

Sure. Absolutely. But for me, it goes beyond the political. It is something that is so basic, and there's just something so common sense about it, about the way you treat people and the way you talk to people and the things you say. There's a line in the chorus, maybe my favorite part of the song, about [the saying] "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," which to me is not true. With bullying and all the stuff going on, words are very important. Words can be more hurtful than anything physically. I got little kids, and it's common sense when you're raising them that the main thing is how you talk to people, and how you treat people. Sometimes I think the world forgets that as we get older.

What do you make of this election season? You were just on the road. What do you see across the country?

I see what we all probably see. We have a broken political system. It's been broken a while. And there is a lot of anger. There is a lot of discontent. It's very important that we don't dismiss it. I think so many people they dismiss that [as], "Well, that's not serious," but it is. My wife is pretty political. I don't care. And I don't mean that in a blasé way. I mean that in I'm not sure I believe that either candidate can get anything done. I don't really trust politicians – go figure. I never really get bogged down in it too much, because it's just not something I focus on. I see it in passing.

Now that being said, this has been a very loud political season, and there's been a lot of anger and back and forth. It's a pretty charged-up time right now. At the end of the day, we all have to get along. I don't care what your belief is – we can't kill each other. It can't happen that way. There's a lot of racial tension in this country, a lot of authoritative tension, with police, and I think all that stuff makes for a tumultuous time. I think all of our politicians need to take a hard look at what their goals are and where we're headed. Because I think a lot of the anger is against the political system, and that can be dangerous if it continues to get worse.

So what's your take on Trump?

I think you'd have to say that he's been very effective at tapping into what I think a lot of the sentiment is. . . . My big take on it is it shines a light on a problem that we have as a country that we have to address. People feeling certain ways and feeling that anger and angst is the bigger issue. I don't believe it's something a president can fix. To me, the most powerful people in this country, politically, are mayors. If you took all the mayors of the 25 biggest cities and you got them together, you could do more on that level than you ever could through the bureaucracy in Washington. For me, it is more community-based. We have to fix it at a lower floor, before a president comes in. I just don't believe with the political system that anything a president and Congress tries to do is ever going to get done.

Because it's busted?

It's busted. Exactly. And that's where, for me, the important thing with Trump is the sentiment there is important. Now on the other side [with Hillary Clinton], you don't have a lot better sentiment. There's a lot of distrust with e-mails and things. Then you're saying, "I have two people here, and Christ, I don't trust either one." To me, that's where the anger comes from. We have to be careful as a country.