When Eric Church was putting together his Outsiders World Tour, launching September 11th in Bossier City, Louisiana, he took the trek’s title to heart. He developed an unconventional new stage, threw out a regular setlist and enlisted not populist radio stars as support acts, but genre-crossing rebels with a certain indescribable cool. Country traditionalist Dwight Yoakam will appear on all dates of the tour’s 32-city first leg, with rootsy duo Brothers Osborne, singer-songwriter Brandy Clark and hard-rock outfit Halestorm each performing a select number of shows. (Watch an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour preview with Church above.)
“It’s called the Outsiders Tour, so we were trying to show what that is,” Church tells Rolling Stone Country a week prior to the tour kickoff. “Dwight Yoakam is an obvious [example]. I was stunned that when we asked he said yes. Brothers Osborne, I’ve known them a while and they try to do it a different way. Halestorm, everyone knows Lzzy Hale, we’ve done a couple performances together. And then we have Brandy, who I think made the best album in country music in the past year.”
Dressed in jeans, a black t-shirt and his requisite aviator sunglasses, the lithe, road-ready Church stands on the upper deck of Nashville’s downtown dinosaur, the Municipal Auditorium, where he and his band have been rehearsing, and gestures at his space-age stage below. “It’s like a giant Transformer,” he says. Designed to play to fans on all sides and even inside the stage, the behemoth is Church’s version of the “in the round” experience.
“I went out and opened a couple shows with George Strait. It was the first time I had ever been in that scenario in an arena. I was surprised by how intimate it felt,” says Church, who released his fourth studio album, The Outsiders, last February. “We come from bars and clubs and I miss that intimacy, which you always try to grab. The bigger the room, the smaller you want that room to feel.”
“I saw Bruce Springsteen this year at Bridgestone do it,” he says, recalling an April show in Nashville’s modern hockey arena. “It would never make sense logically that by [playing in the round] the people back there would be such a part of it. But they’re integral. And we designed it that way.”
Church, however, won’t be designing a concrete set list. He promises no two shows will be alike. “Every night, different setlist,” he smirks, exhibiting some of the trademark cockiness that has made him such a working-class hero to his fans. “It’s a challenge for us, but that’s our problem.”
During the 2012-13 Blood, Sweat and Beers Tour and for the bulk of his appearances in support of 2011’s Chief album, the artist manifested that confidence in his signature “Chief” get-up: Von Dutch baseball hat and shades. But for the run-up to the Outsiders Tour, fans have noticed that he’s jettisoned the hat. Church says the Chief character is far from dead.
“It’s just not something I overthink. A lot of people started overthinking that. I think there will be nights when I come out with the hat, some nights not,” he says. In fact, he gained some insight into stage personas from Springsteen himself during the New Jersey icon’s stop in Nashville.
“We were talking about some stuff, and something about ‘The Boss’ came up. He said, ‘I’m only the Boss onstage. I’m only that guy onstage,'” Church recalls. “Everybody has to find whatever that thing is when they go out there and step into that role to entertain the people. It’s not disingenuous. In a lot of ways it may be more like yourself than your real life. But it’s something that every artist that I respect a lot does, including George. He puts the cowboy hat on and goes out there to be George Strait.”
T.J. Osborne, singer for sibling duo Brothers Osborne, believes Church is making a statement with this tour. “And that’s what people expect and love about him,” says Osborne. “He picks music that would complement the tour, and has an outsider theme, but is still something different than he is doing. Naturally, everyone who will be on the tour just wants to bring a different flavor. We’re going to go out there with our amps, guitars, basses and drums and play some good fucking music.”
Brothers Osborne, whose single “Rum” is currently in the Top 30, will be responsible for the first notes played tonight on the Outsiders Tour. They’ve signed on for the first 12 shows, followed by Clark and Halestorm.
“It’s a great challenge. But I’m not scared,” says Clark about winning over Church’s boisterous crowd with the sometimes hushed songs from her acclaimed LP 12 Stories. Clark, who recently performed more than 50 shows on Jennifer Nettles’ That Girl Tour with just an acoustic guitar will be bringing a full band for her Outsiders run. And she has a sure-fire primer for Church’s inevitable performance of his breakthrough stoner anthem “Smoke a Little Smoke.”
“My ace in the hole is ‘Get High,'” says Clark. The song about a housewife who escapes her daily drudgery with a fat one has been a proven crowd-pleaser. “It doesn’t matter where I was with Jennifer, once I play that song, everybody’s in.”
“What she does is so honest, so real,” says Church of Clark. “I’m elated to see what the people think of it.”
With his unique stage, seat-of-his-pants song choices and take-no-prisoners attitude, the headliner, who will travel the entire tour with his wife Katherine and three-year-old son Boone in tow, is equally excited about how fans respond to his set. For the first time, he is employing video screens, along with GoPro cameras positioned on some of the 17 microphones he’ll run to around the stage.
“There’s a chance to see us everywhere,” Church says. “I want everybody in that place to feel like they experienced something, that they’re going to tell people, ‘That show was spiritual to me. I felt it.’ It’s up to the spirit in the room to see if people feel that, but we’re going to do everything we can to make that happen.”