“We all are in this room because music touched us in some way,” Eric Church told a crowd of radio programmers gathered for a Q&A with radio personality Lon Helton during Country Radio Seminar in Nashville on Thursday, in a conversation called “Chasing Creativity.” In addition to letting slip some details about his new album, for which he’s recorded 28 songs in 28 days, Church spoke candidly about his artistic process — and how he’s often sacrificed surefire success for staying true to his vision, and his gut.
“I try to put myself in the most uncomfortable situations,” Church says. “Making it hard, and making sure no one is mailing it in. That’s always something we have to push ourselves to chase. For me, it’s very elusive. With creativity, the harder you try and stress, the more it doesn’t happen.”
From developing his signature image to making last-minute live decisions, here are five things we learned from the conversation.
Church’s mother wasn’t so sure about the Sinners Like Me song “Two Pink Lines” when she first heard it — but not for the reason you think.
“I have a thick North Carolina accent,” he says, wearing reading glasses in place of his signature aviators. “So when my mom heard it, she was a little uncomfortable. She said, ‘I just don’t understand the hook. Two pink lions? Where are the lions?’ Well, they’re not there.” The second single from his debut album, “Two Pink Lines” was a bit polarizing at the time of its release, and failed to chart well, but Church felt passionate about putting it out anyway. “’Two Pink Lines’ was a choice, and it was because I never had heard about that subject matter [in a song],” he says. “You could talk about it at the dinner table, but you wouldn’t put it out.”
Releasing the title track of The Outsiders as that album’s first single was a strategic move.
As a bit of prog-rock country, Church thought the only way the song might get heard was if it were the first single. “I knew our best shot was putting ‘The Outsiders’ out first,” he says. “Because I knew people would gravitate towards [the more accessible] ‘Talladega.’” When it was released, Church went down to the beach in Florida to “get out of town. I had colleagues and friends saying, ‘What have you done?’ With me, you never know what’s coming. I never want someone to hear something from me and go, ‘I expected that to be the song.’ And it’s still our biggest live song. I think a lot of that is because it got played. Briefly.”
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It took time for him to get to his signature sunglasses and hat “Chief” look — and he thinks we should allow more time for artists to develop.
“I believe the biggest disservice we do is put out a song and expect that person to know who they are creatively,” he says. “The journey is where I found out about myself.” Even his own team wasn’t sold on the album cover art for Chief, which is just Church in those glasses and hat, in a photo his manager John Peets took to test out a new camera lens. “He snapped it, and as soon as I saw it I said, ‘That’s the cover of the next album,’” he says. “It spoke to me. I knew immediately. But I got pushback: ‘You can’t wear a hat because you have hair, and you can’t wear shades because you have pretty eyes.’ Which is kind of weird.”
He was more upset for his team than for himself when he lost Entertainer of the Year at last November’s CMA Awards.
“It was painful more for the people around me,” he says of the award that ended up going to Garth Brooks. “To me, it’s a trophy and that’s what it is. But not for the people who push those carts and the fans. That was who I hurt for. Your crew, your team, your fans. Other than that, it’s a trophy. I’m still going to play the same show. When you start making decisions to try to win trophies, then it becomes detrimental to your overall vision.”
Church’s 17-song medley of his hits, performed solo during his 2019 CMA Fest set, was a last-minute surprise to his band, and the show’s producers.
Just two weeks after setting an attendance record at his Nissan Stadium show in Nashville, Church felt he had to do something different for his CMA Fest appearance. “I decided to do that on the spot,” he said. “The production people were freaking out. I sent the band home.” Because Church did the entire set without stopping in between songs, it wasn’t able to be edited in when the show aired on ABC later in the year. Church has no regrets, though. “It was great for the people in the room,” he said. “It just didn’t go on ABC.”