Last year, Eric Church surprised the CMA Awards by announcing the release of his new album Mr. Misunderstood and handing out copies in the pressroom. At the 50th annual CMA Awards on Wednesday, Mr. Misunderstood won Church his second CMA Album of the Year trophy, and back in the pressroom, he tried to process what transpired in those 12 months.
"I've always believed that you put everything into making the best record you can make, regardless of how you release it and regardless of the press and the hype, that the music wins," he said. "For me, that was the biggest thing about tonight: Music wins. You don't need a 12-week ad cycle or a bunch of networks to do an album. I think the way we did this was we let the music lead and we started with the fans."
To hear Church talk about it, this required trust that the fans would both find the music and listen without notions of genre or format – particularly in the ever-shifting boundary between country and Americana. "We're the same family," he said. "Maybe different cousins, but we're the same family. I think that when it works right, we're all pulling for each other, and we don't draw that hard line in the sand of 'Well you're here and I'm here.' Music should never really do that in my opinion. I think that what's happening in Americana really bled into country music. You can start with Chris Stapleton. Last year, that was the heart of Americana, and it was a big winner. And it's been a big popular winner this past year.
"There are a lot of [Americana] people now that can go sell out two or three Rymans, and they're relevant, and the music's relevant, and the depth is relevant," he added. "I think that's something that doesn't always happen that way. It's an exciting time. It's a time that I think historically, as people look back on it, they can look to this period and go, 'That was a positive period in country music.'"
Church tried to bring that sense of relevance to his own CMA performance, a version of Mr. Misunderstood's timely "Kill a Word" that featured Jenny Holzer-style projections and vocals from roots star Rhiannon Giddens.
"I think that in the world we live in, the whole world's lost their mind," said Church. "I've performed on a lot of award shows, I've played a lot of songs, but I don't know if I ever had a performance that felt more important and timely than this one. Unfortunately, that's true. With Rhiannon, I was a big fan of [her former band] Carolina Chocolate Drops, first of all, and for her to be able to stand up there and put emotion on it is the big thing. She feels it."
For the rest of the night, Church was just another fan, albeit one with particularly good seats. "I was backstage, sitting there with Olivia Newton-John, and it was all I could do not to go into "Summer Lovin'," he said, singing the piano chords from the song's opening. "It was more than I could handle. I had a great conversation with Vince Gill about cheeseburgers. This is surreal shit."