No one was more surprised that Eric Church opened the recent 50th anniversary ACM awards broadcast with “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” — a nearly decade-old cut from his first album — than Eric Church.
“I said to Mike Dungan [the Chairman & CEO of Universal Music Group], ‘If I told you when we made Sinners Like Me that 10 years from now we’d be opening the ACMs with ‘Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,’ you would’ve told me I was crazy,'” says Church with a laugh.
By now the superstar singer-songwriter is used to making ideas that seem crazy work like a charm.
From playing a mostly solo acoustic show in Salt Lake City in January when much of his band and crew was sidelined by illness, to making the eight-minute twang-prog fever dream, “Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)” the centerpiece of his current tour, Church goes his own way.
It’s a way that recently earned him the Number One slot on the latest Billboard Hot Tours recap, based on $2.1 million in ticket sales from four concerts on the tour, which has broken attendance records at several venues and raked in $35 million at the box office since last September. And speaking of record breakers, Church will join Kenny Chesney for a handful of stadium dates this spring and summer.
We caught up with Church at a Hampton, Virginia, tour stop to chat about his unexpected ACMs performance, being “scared to death” on stage, an unlikely new business venture and a thrilling gig for his inner Deadhead.
Was playing “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” the ACM producers’ idea or yours?
That was ours. [Laughs] It was actually my manager’s, John Peets. He had seen footage from 50 years ago of Merle Haggard, who won Most Promising Male Vocalist, and since this was the 50th anniversary that’s where it started. So he went to them and I was shocked when they said it was OK. To go from “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” into “Raise ‘Em Up” and to have Keith [Urban] play on it, that was eerily calm because we were just having fun. We didn’t over-rehearse it. We don’t get a chance to play very much together, so when you’re out there playing you get lost in the moment.
How is the tour evolving? Is mixing up the set list working for you and the band?
We’re playing over two and a half hours and that’s just because we’re having fun. When we switch it up like that, it’s fun for us as a band and when we have fun, the people have fun. There’s probably some nights when people scratch their heads wondering why they didn’t hear some hits. There’s no guarantee we’ll play them. I’ve not had the balls to not play “Springsteen” yet, but maybe one night I’ll just leave that one in the car. We’re still just keeping it fresh and different and making it unique for each city.
You’re breaking attendance records and were recently named Number One on Billboard‘s Hot Tours recap. It must be gratifying to top an all-genre list like that.
I think it’s good that we’re getting a lot of people in the rooms. I still say that it’s what you do then. It’s one thing to get ’em in the room, it’s quite another one that they’ll leave there and want to come back, and that’s really what I focus on. I don’t care if it’s 1,000 or 100,000, it’s about making sure whatever that room is, that they have a unique experience. And changing the show enables the possibility that there can be that spiritual connection, that thing that nobody can name that happens at a show.
Speaking of which, are you planning something special for that Salt Lake City make-up date on Memorial Day?
We may be. And I’m going to do more [acoustic shows], too. We’re opening [the new Ascend] amphitheatre in Nashville in July and I’m going to do that by myself, solo acoustic. So I’m going to start doing a little bit of that here and there when the situation calls for it.
That new venue holds 6,800 seats, which will probably feel intimate after the arena and stadium shows.
Yeah, it’s great. When we had talked about it we had just played Bridgestone Arena in Nashville and really couldn’t go play [the area] again. It was one of those things where they had mentioned, “We sure wish you guys were available when we open this thing.” And we were off and I wasn’t doing anything, and when I heard it I immediately said, “You know what, I had such a great time in Salt Lake. . .” And it really goes beyond Salt Lake. The two shows I opened for George Strait on his farewell tour, they were acoustic. That’s really where it started for me, because I walked out there in the round, 20,000 George Strait fans, and had no clue what I was going to do and I was scared to death. It was the first time in a long time I’ve been scared to death on stage and I loved it. It’s that feeling that you don’t get every night, and I think it made for a really special show. And then Salt Lake happened — and again, it was just one of those times it was a magical night, I could never duplicate that — but somewhere during that show, I just found myself having a lot of fun. So I’m going to look at doing a few of those special things by myself.
You’re also taking part in the Jerry Garcia tribute in Maryland in May with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead and other special guests. Are you a big Deadhead?
I’m a big Dead guy, but I’m also a big fan of the Jerry Garcia Band. The stuff that he did after the Dead and the stuff he did with David Grisman, I grew up on that. Being from North Carolina I had a really bluegrass-folk-jam band moment in my life, especially during college — I went to Merlefest every year. Jerry Garcia is easily one of the most underrated guitar players ever. Is [his playing] the greatest technically? No, but it’s just so damn identifiable, it’s so unique, you can tell it’s him when he’s playing. . . He was a huge influence. And I get to play with the Dead! Come on, man, it was an easy thing for me. I said, “I am in, I am your guy.”
What’s the plan for the next single?
I have no idea. We’ve got “Like a Wrecking Ball” out now, and it’s doing well. I just don’t know where we go from here. It depends on where this one lands. I know the label wants to put another couple out.
Maybe it’s time to shake things up and release “Devil, Devil”?
[Laughs] Yeah, tell that to country radio, they’ll love that.
You can start the turnaround right now — that can be the pivot point.
Hey, we’ve tried. [Laughs] We put “Outsiders” out first off this album, so we’re doing our part. “Outsiders” fell on its face. Next was “[Give Me Back My] Hometown,” which was Number One, and then we put out “Cold One” and it fell on its face. [Laughs]. And then we put out “Talledega” and it was Number One. So it’s like every other one [is a hit]. So I’m hoping “Like a Wrecking Ball” breaks the trend and does well. But, it is what it is for me. I’m just nowhere near what’s next. I just started writing a little bit. The label certainly wants to keep putting out singles. I didn’t realize this but it was at the ACMs they were telling me, “You do realize that The Outsiders has been out 14 months and it’s still in the top 10?” That is the coolest thing, because everybody gets so amped up about that first week number, but I even said then that I’m more concerned with week 100 than I am week one, because you want a record to have longevity. And I’m most proud that this one seems to.
Your third Sirius “Outsiders Radio” special just premiered. Are you having fun with that?
I’m a having a great time, who would’ve thought? I don’t even like to do interviews. I’m not playing anything that anyone would think. I’m playing some of the most obscure, weird [stuff] and that’s what’s fun. People who are tuning in to hear our stuff are wasting their time because this is my influences and maybe tidbits about this song and this person and how it relates to me or how it relates to what I do. But it’s fun for me to craft them. Once we get done, we have a month to focus on the next one. They’re all theme-based.
So is it the kind of thing where you’re riding on the bus and you get an idea and scribble it down?
Yeah. This next one it’s called “Under the Covers,” and it’s artists who cover other artists. There’s a song that Levon Helm did that was covering the Grateful Dead, “Tennessee Jed.” And we started talking about that and that’s where this came from. Think about all the artists that have covered other artists and when you start lining those up, there are some really great, iconic ones out there.
Are you gearing up now for the stadium dates with Kenny?
Yeah. That was Kenny and I getting drunk at George Strait’s last show. [Laughs] We had such a great time touring together, it was like a vacation for me. I played one day a week. I left on Saturday, went in and got to be around that environment and came home, “See you again next Saturday!” I said to him, “Man, I’m really gonna miss that.” And I think I said something like, “If you ever have a few that you can’t put anybody on, I’ll play ’em.” And he said, “Yeah, right.” I think he thought we were just drinking. Sometimes, when you do this long enough, it’s not about what people think you would do, you just do it because you want to do it. And I said that to him, “I don’t give a damn whether we’re supposed to or not. I enjoyed it. I have a ton of respect for you, your people, what you do. Both crews and bands like each other and I think the fans will have fun because of that, so let’s go play!”
You recently announced you’ll be launching a furniture line called “Highway to Home.” It seems a little out of left field, but your dad was in the furniture business, so are you just taking part in the family tradition?
My first job was in a furniture plant. I used to load swatches in boxes, samples that we sent off to people to pick. I’d go load the trucks and unload them when they came back. That was a summer job for me for many years, even in college. Where I’m from, it’s just part of the DNA. So we got approached, and I’m not a furniture designer by any stretch, but my involvement is a lot of what I would put in my house. But the interesting part is it’s as much about the stories and the journeys that I’ve been on as it is about wood and fabric. It’s about the thousands and thousands of miles down the highway in different parts of the country and the world and what all those things added up look like in a collection.
So you’re in conversation with designers explaining things you’ve seen and liked and they’re creating the pieces based on that?
Yeah. And I’ve said many times, “If it’s ever about something other than the music, it’ll never be that for me. So you guys have to understand that my involvement is going to be broad and then I’m going to make music.” [Laughs]
And you will be donating part of the proceeds to charity?
My goal is to donate it all to Chief Cares, which is our foundation, and the majority will go to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
How’s the new baby doing?
He’s doing great. This is the second night on the road, our maiden voyage with everybody. [Older son] Boone had been on the road for a long time, but this is the first time we’ve brought Boone and [newborn son] Hawk and the dogs and the circus. If people are wondering why my set list is getting longer, it’s because I don’t want to walk offstage and face this shit. [Laughs]. But we’re having a good time. I’d rather have them here than not, but it is crazy right now. . . Crazy.