Before taking the stage at Nashville's Ascend Amphitheater, a sterling new facility overlooking the Cumberland River and the downtown skyline, Eric Church was calm and collected. Relaxing on his bus just 30 minutes prior to showtime, signature aviators resting on the table in front of him, the singer-songwriter flipped through Music City's local free weekly the Nashville Scene, perusing the club listings and wondering aloud what he'll play in his stripped-down solo set that evening.
"I know the first song I'm going to play, and that's it," said Church, who remarkably didn't seem to be all that concerned that he was about to perform without a set list or, more importantly, without his ace band backing him up. But when Rolling Stone Country suggested he take this rare on-his-own show on the road — which he first debuted out of necessity in Salt Lake City in January when band and crew were taken ill — the "Like a Wrecking Ball" singer admitted the idea "terrified" him. As Church put it, the free-form structure is the ultimate "oh shit" moment. "But I love 'oh shit,'" he said.
When the show began, with stoner anthem "Smoke a Little Smoke," it was clear that Church wasn't bluffing about winging it. Throughout the loose set, he laughed off flubbed lyrics, paused to consider what to play next and whispered instructions to the members of his band who, individually, left their stools at the onstage bar to sit in on specific songs. Jeff Cease's greasy slide-guitar cameo on "Cold One" was especially mesmerizing, while guitarist Driver Williams added some heavy-metal muscle to "Before She Does." It was touring vocalist Joanna Cotten, however, who came closest to stealing the spotlight from her boss: her vocals on "Creepin'" were enormous, at one point letting loose a scream that would do the late Ronnie James Dio proud.
Along with Number Ones like "Drink in My Hand" and "Talladega," Church also took time to weave in a new song. Titled "Three Year Old," the ballad shared life lessons the country star father learned while rearing his young son Boone (little brother Hawk is five months old). If The Outsiders standout track "Dark Side" was Church playing the great protector, "Three Year Old" is him as humbled dad.
Church will perform a second installment of his solo show again tonight in Nashville — reportedly with some special guests, but still no concrete set list. Which is what made last night's engagement such a ballsy performance. The number of artists who can pull off the feat, standing vulnerable on a stage with just a guitar, is minuscule, and the number of radio-country artists who would even attempt it is likely smaller still. But Church rose to the occasion, proving that sometimes a simple "oh shit" can beat any bells, whistles or inflatable devils.