Ever since he got booted off the Rascal Flatts tour in 2006 for playing too long, Eric Church has been country music’s middle finger, upending the way things are done in Nashville with both his albums and his live show. His new record Heart & Soul is a wildly ambitious triple album — one titled Heart, one &, and one Soul — that he wrote and recorded in the mountains of North Carolina with longtime producer Jay Joyce and an army of trusted songwriters. Instead of a studio, he commandeered a restaurant and challenged himself to write and record a song a day.
The result is an urgent, seat-of-your-pants record, with songs that salute Church’s fans (“Through My Ray-Bans”), celebrate his rebel image (“Lone Wolf”), and bite the hand that feeds him (“Stick That in Your Country Song”). After reinventing the country music tour in 2019 by doing away with opening acts, playing three-hour gigs, and shuffling the set list from night to night, Church is determined to be one of the first artists back on the road in a post-Covid world. Earlier this month, he announced an ambitious 55-date arena tour, kicking off this September. “That’s aggressive, but I’ve got to make it happen,” he says over Zoom from his writing cabin west of Nashville. “I’ve got to make it happen because I think it’s that crucial to the overall sentiment of what society is going through right now. We need this. I need this.”
We talked to Church about the evolution of his sound, the social issues facing country music, and what made him nearly freeze up during his performance of the national anthem at the Super Bowl.
How’s quarantine going for you? Where are you now compared to last year at this time?
I miss playing, man. I had a hard few years anyway, coming into this quarantine part. I think music and being onstage was therapy in a lot of ways. So that’s been the biggest thing I’ve missed. I mean, I’ve played music onstage — somewhat professionally, getting paid — since I was 19 or 20 years old. 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.
Your sound changed dramatically from the heavy metal of The Outsiders in 2014 to the rootsy vibes of 2015’s Mr. Misunderstood and the soul of 2018’s Desperate Man. What happened there?
The Outsiders was a rebellion record. That was me trying to get away from the guy that had just made the Chief album and had a lot of success and had been boxed in in a lot of ways. I felt like Outsiders was creativity run amok, where you have a person going, “I do not want to be who you want me to be.” And I think Mr. Misunderstood was the more organic return to the singer-songwriter part of that, the storytelling part of that. I’m still having a hard time talking about what I think Heart & Soul is, because I didn’t find and set out to make Heart & Soul. I think a lot of artists and songwriters 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.
You’ve said that making the Desperate Man album was too “comfortable.” Is that what prompted you to change things up in North Carolina?
Yeah. The best way I would say it is “fat and happy.” I felt like we came off of an arena tour, sold-out shows, and we show up in the studio and everybody’s kind of, “Well, I guess we’re going to make a record.” There was no sense of urgency. There was no danger. I felt like the band was just kind of there. I love the Desperate Man album… it has nothing to do with what the end product was. The process was difficult. The whole thing was a grind. And 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.
My idea, instead of doing that, was this North Carolina deal, where I take Jay out of his element. I take the band and I put them in a competitive situation with other people. And then for myself, I went there with four or five song ideas and I exhausted them quickly. So when we got to like day seven, 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 are we going to write tomorrow?”
Despite that approach and the fact that Heart & Soul is three separate albums, it plays like a cohesive project.
That’s interesting you say that, but you’re right. The reason it sounds that way is it’s kind of like The Band and Big Pink. It was made in a place where no record’s ever been made. 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 different because we’ve never been in that environment.
There’s a heartland vibe in songs like “Heart on Fire,” but there is also a heavy dose of rock opera. “Heart of the Night” and “Russian Roulette” could have been on Bat Out of Hell.
“Heart of the Night” is rock opera. You know what gets me… It’s so funny you say that, and, Joe, this is why you piss me off sometimes. There’s a part on “Heart of the Night” where it goes [sings], “The still beating heart of the night!” and the [drums] hit. And Jay goes, “We can’t do all those hits.” I said, “Dude, it’s Meat Loaf, let’s do it.” It’s overdramatic. It’s over-passionate. It’s also a little Neil Diamond in there. It was over the top, but it never felt wrong. If we had analyzed it and brought it back and put it through the normal [song vetting] channels, we would have gotten to the end and said, “Hm, let’s cut ‘Heart on Fire’ [instead].” That’s what made this different. We didn’t do that. We said, “This is what we wrote today. Let’s commit ourselves to this, have fun with it, and let’s do it.” And I’ve never made an album that way.
I kept thinking Joanna Cotten, your longtime backing vocalist, is your Ellen Foley, the singer in “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” And Jay Joyce is like your Todd Rundgren. So I’m glad to hear you acknowledge the Meat Loaf comparison.
You’re 100% right. I don’t know what people think of that, and I don’t really give a shit. I said we’re going to do it and we’ve got to commit to it. It’s Meat Loaf — there’s no half Loaf. It was fun for me to get into… You don’t have to be so self-conscious that it’s, “Well, I can’t sing that because what if people hear it?” Try it. Sing it. Go falsetto. I think I could play around more with this album than other albums. I’m not thinking about the prism of how people look at it; I’m just doing it. There’s some vocals on here that are a little more in character, I guess, where I could commit to things.
The grammar nerd in me needs to know: How are you referring to the middle album? Is it titled Ampersand or And?
It’s Heart And Soul for me. John [Peets, my manager] will tell you Ampersand. This is kind of a good story. When this thing was over and everybody had left, the band and the crew, I stayed a day later because I wanted to hang with Jay and go through [the songs]. He said, “I need you to give me a list of what you think the album will be, so I can start working on mixes and roughs.” And I’m going through it and all these “Heart” songs are grouping up. So I thought, “What if the name of the album is Heart?” Then I thought, “Heart and Soul,” so I convinced myself it was a double disc. I showed John and said, “Here’s what I think Heart is. Here’s what I think Soul is. But we don’t have ‘Ray-Bans,’ ‘Lone Wolf,’ or ‘Doing Life With Me’ [on either].” He goes, “What if the ‘and’ is an album?” I said, “We can’t have an album called And!” And he goes, “What it if it’s Ampersand, just a symbol?” I said, “Who are we, Prince? We’re not doing symbols.” So we talked through it a bit and here is where he got me. He said, “What if Heart‘s red, Soul‘s blue and Ampersand‘s purple?” I sat back, and I went, “Maybe. That’s interesting.” I could kind of see how that would look. But I was never a fan of “And.”
You’ve committed to touring in the fall. What is your vision for how we all get back to shows, whether they’re in a club, a field or an arena?
I think it starts with vaccinations. I think 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, it’s vaccinations.” It’s needles in arms. I’m a big proponent of that. There’s going to be festivals that play this summer, at capacity. It’s going to happen.
In the United States?
Yes. There’s going to be a couple that happen in June. But they will happen, and once the vaccine is fully available, I believe we’re going to play in the fall. The issue is going to be the municipalities and how do you do that, because I’m not sure that’s an [all] 50 state deal. This has been the most challenging thing by a mile that I’ve ever seen. You don’t need a plan — you need a plan and 52 contingency plans, because it’s a moving target. I think a lot of [artists] kind of punted to ’22, and ’22 is going to be good. But I think we’ll play in the fall. I think we’ll play in arenas in the fall. I think we’ll play at capacity in the fall. A lot of that depends on vaccinations and if these numbers continue improving. I anticipate that they will.
Did you get your vaccination?
Yes. And here’s what I would encourage everybody to do. Take it upon yourself for your own health. What I did was, early on, I [registered with my first name] as Kenneth Church, not as Eric. I put myself on a waiting list on numerous sites and got a call from a county near where I live. They said they had vaccines that were expiring and if I wanted to do it, I could do it. But I took that upon myself: People should be looking for these things until [vaccines are] widely available. Very soon they’re going to be widely available and at that point in time, I would encourage anyone who can, to get the vaccine. It’s common sense to me. 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. Period.
Social justice and racial issues have dominated country music this year. Does it feel like the genre is at an inflection point?
Yeah, maybe, and I think that’s great… Historically, diversity is always the best thing for the music. Always, no matter what genre you’re in, diversity usually leads to some breakthrough 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. I feel like we’re in the same place the country is in. I think we as country music represent the United States of America in a lot of ways. 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 when I walked to the mic at the Super Bowl to sing [the national anthem] with an African-American R&B singer [Jazmine Sullivan], what was going on in our format was on my mind. And the fact that it’s on my mind means that we probably got a lot of things to address.
Did it sting when you saw the video of Morgan Wallen using a racial slur? He cut a song that you co-wrote, “Quittin’ Time,” on his album.
Yeah. It was a heartbreaking deal. Heartbreaking is the best thing I can say. Morgan’s got to work on Morgan now and where that goes. I think that’s something I hope he does, and anticipate he’ll do. I think that as a format, though, we just have to continue to strive to be better, and I think it can end up being a really healthy thing. As we have these conversations, it’s a good thing for all of us.
In your 2018 Rolling Stone cover story, you said, “We don’t talk to each other enough. We dig in, we don’t listen and we don’t talk.” Do you feel that we’ve gotten better or worse at that?
Worse. I think Covid’s made it a lot worse just because without concerts, without sporting events, everything has been about what divides us as a society. “Which side are you on?” And that’s insane to me. It’s asinine, because when I play a concert, those 20,000 people or 50,000, whatever they are, they don’t have a side. They got their arm around the guy beside them and they’re singing a song. Tribalism is the most dangerous thing.
Let’s go back to the Super Bowl for a moment. Is singing the anthem as nerve-wracking as they say?
More, more. In a show, if you come out and you have some nerves, you got four or five songs to work them off and you’re in your groove. The anthem’s different. 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. It was all these patriotic images of soldiers. Then the color guard came up and one of the soldiers kind of gave me this [salutes]. And dude, I almost couldn’t sing. I told Katherine, my wife, after that: “If you see me staring at my feet the night of the Super Bowl, it’s because I can’t look at what’s going on around me.”
So Super Bowl night, we come in the tunnel early — they get you there like two and a half hours before you gotta sing. The color guard was there and they were praying. And one of the Marines, an African-American Marine, turned around and said, “Permission to shake your hand, sir?” I have not had a handshake since Covid started. And I went, “Granted, yessir.” He took his white glove off — and keep in mind we’ve been tested to death, so this is not unsafe — and he shook my hand and then all 15 of them did. Then I walked to the mic, and that’s when I realized this is 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 [country music] format. I felt like I needed to represent the format in that moment and it just added to all the energy and the emotion of it. I felt every ounce of that.
So maybe they’ll ask you to do the halftime show next.
That’d be something ….
You’re going to be 44 in May. What’s motivating you now?
Getting back onstage and getting us back to normalcy. 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 the writers. It was about the bohemians that had their finger on the pulse of what was going on. We’re in unprecedented times. People talk about 1918, but what I always throw back at them is, “How many touring acts were national acts in 1918? Who tried to tour?” Nobody’s ever tried to do what we’re all trying to do to get everybody back in [venues]. And it is complicated and it is hard, but I believe it’s absolutely worth the effort. I had somebody ask me, “Why 2021? Why not just wait?” I don’t think we can wait. I think it’s too important to wait. I think we got to try. So that’s where I’m holding out hope. I’m just trying to get the guitar on again and start to put back together all the pieces that are broken.