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Eric Church: The Defiant One

Modern country's sharpest songwriter sounds off — on gun-control, what country should (and shouldn't) be, hating lip-syncing, loving Bernie Sanders, and that time he almost died.
Joe Pugliese for Rolling Stone

A few miles outside Nashville, as the Walmarts and Waffle Houses give way to country roads and hickory trees, there’s a wild expanse of land, about 2,000 acres, nestled near the banks of the Cumberland River and guarded by security cameras. That’s where Eric Church is building his lakes.

The first lake is still just a pit – an excavation site full of bulldozers and sump pumps and limestone boulders that Church and his wife, Katherine, have spent the past few years digging up. (“One of my buddies came by and said, ‘Dude! Did you buy a quarry?’ ” says Church.) The second is closer to finished: It’s at the back of the property, on a little creek that drains from a holler. The dam has been built and the wells have been dug – now all it needs is water. Church is hoping to start filling it soon; the plan is to have the waterline come right up to his cabin. “My dream is to sit on the couch and bounce a lure off the patio right into the water,” he says.

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Joe Pugliese for Rolling Stone

Church, 41, is standing outside overlooking his not-quite-a-lake, a little red-faced in the Tennessee heat. His black jeans and T-shirt are damp with sweat, and his hair is mussed and matted under a visor. The gold accents on his Rolex glint in the sun. He looks like a golf pro in Baja who just got back from a day on the boat.

Church and his wife bought the first chunk of this land back in 2011, then two more parcels in the years that followed. “It’s been expensive,” he says. “Especially the lakes. When we started digging, we hit rock, so we needed more clay to hold the water. . . .”

I ask how much he’s spent so far. “A lot,” he says. “I honestly don’t know what number I would give you. I’m afraid I could go wrong both ways.”

At least seven figures? Church nods. Eight figures? He laughs, then blushes. “Oh, I hope not. . . .” A pained look crosses his face as he does some mental math.

He can afford it. The country-music superstar’s last four albums have each gone platinum, and he sells out arenas all over the country, playing three-hour shows from Brooklyn to Boise to L.A. “And when it’s done, it’ll be great,” he says of the land. “So I’m not quitting anytime soon.”

“Not quitting anytime soon” could practically be Church’s life motto. He first came to Nashville 17 years ago, a scrappy wanna-be songwriter who made ends meet answering phones on the Shop at Home Network’s graveyard shift. (He got fired for talking a drunk guy out of buying 200 knives at 3 a.m. Church: “Tell you what, man – go to bed, and if you still want ’em in the morning, I’ll be here.” Drunk guy: “But they said there’s only three left!”)

“Early in my career, I was pretty damn aggravated,” Church says. “I knew people getting songs on the radio weren’t as good as us. For a long time I felt ignored. But it was good for me, because it pissed me off. There was a lot of doubt, and that doubt really drove me. I think it still does, to some extent.”

Right now Church has relocated to his second home for the summer, a cabin high in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina, where it’s 20 degrees cooler. Yesterday he spent Father’s Day there with his two sons, Boone, 6, and Hawk, 3 (they got him a Build-a-Bear), then rode his tour bus to Nashville for a few days of business. (Church uses his tour bus the way other people use Uber.) He’d talked about going fishing today, but it’s too hot to fish. So instead, he proposes a survey of the property on his Polaris UTV, a sort of golf cart on HGH. “Watch your beer,” he warns as he fires it up.

We tear off down a gravel road, which quickly becomes a wooded trail, which quickly becomes bushwhacking through brush. Church rumbles over a log, and a spooked deer flees through the forest. He says some of his friends come out here to shoot trophy bucks, but he doesn’t hunt much anymore. “There’s something different when you own the land,” he says. “I see these guys all the time. It doesn’t seem too sporting to me. I’d rather just look at ’em.”

Deep in the woods now, we roll past a sunny clearing that I joke would make a good spot for a private grow operation. Church, a noted herb enthusiast, grins. “Don’t think I haven’t thought about it,” he says. Eventually we reach a spot where a fallen tree blocks the path. Church says he was here not long ago and tried to go around it, “but I was going too slow, and I got all woppy-jawed.” The Polaris started to tip, and he didn’t have time to think – he just stuck his foot out and stood up as it flipped around him. It came to rest on one side, his head poking out the passenger doorway. “Now my wife and I always tell each other where we’re going,” he says.

They’ve been happening to Church a lot recently, these brushes with death and catastrophe. Last summer, shortly after his 40th birthday, there was a terrifying health scare and a lifesaving surgery. A few months later, the tragic massacre in Las Vegas. We’ll eventually get to them both. “I was happy when 41 came – 41’s been awesome,” Church says. “But 40 was tough. Forty sucked.” (Shortly after our interview, as this issue went to press, news broke that Church’s brother, Brandon, had passed away.)

AFTER ABOUT AN HOUR, we retire to the cabin to cool off. It’s where Church wrote most of Desperate Man, his upcoming album, due in October. It’s a homey spot, all leather and wood, with high stone walls and the pleasing aroma of campfire smoke. There’s a fridge full of cold beer and a bar full of Jack, and three acoustic guitars hanging from the wall – one that’s Church’s, one that belonged to Eric Clapton and one that belonged to Waylon Jennings. Jennings is one of Church’s guys; so are Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson.

But while Church loves the old outlaws and often gets tagged as a modern-day rebel himself, he admits he’s really not much of an outsider. “It’s hard to say that in terms of popularity,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of hit songs. But I hope ‘different’ is a word for me. If you look at our writing and what we’ve recorded, I hope people go, ‘Man, that guy did it his own way.’ ”

With his leather jackets and aviators and epic guitar solos, Church has long prided himself on being as rock as he is country. He grew up on Petty and the Stones, and he calls AC/DC’s Back in Black “the most important thing to happen to me as a young man.” His trademark songs are nostalgic anthems that name-check rock greats, from Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy (on “Mr. Misunderstood”) to Bruce Springsteen (on “Springsteen”). And if you ask him whose career he hopes for, he offers up not Garth Brooks or George Strait but Springsteen and Bob Seger.

Desperate Man is classic Church: expertly crafted and country-radio-friendly, while also pushing boundaries in a way that sounds natural and unforced. The first single, “Desperate Man,” features the Latin drums and barroom piano of “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Hanging Around” is a jumpy, electrified juke-joint groove. Sometimes it hardly sounds country at all, like on “Heart Like a Wheel” – all languid bluesy soul.

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Joe Pugliese for Rolling Stone

Jay Joyce, who has produced all six of Church’s albums, says they’ve always followed their own path. “The first couple of records we had some steel guitar,” Joyce says. “And then we looked at each other like, ‘We fuckin’ hate steel guitar!’ ”

Church loves left-of-center country throwbacks like Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson: “That’s what country should be.” He understands the growing influence of EDM and hip-hop (which, after all, are to today’s young artists what rock was to him), but he worries about the genre getting so broad that it loses its essence. “The great thing about country is where it came from,” he says. “It can change and evolve, and it should. It’s a big umbrella. But we can’t let it get so wide that we don’t know where the middle is. Country is not about hay bales or a fiddle. It’s about emotion and the organic way we make it. We don’t use machines. We use instruments.”

All of which helps explain an incident last year that, he says, “really got my claws out.”

For his last album, Church embarked on a five-month arena tour that was both unusual and grueling. It had no opening act; he played three-hour sets every night, sometimes four or five nights a week. It beat him up. He spent the second half of the tour on prednisone, an anti-inflammatory steroid, and says he lost 17 pounds between the first show and the last.

He was rewarded for his effort with a nomination for the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year, which he had never won. “I thought if we ever had a chance, that was it,” he says. But on the night of the ceremony, the prize went to Garth Brooks. Church was disappointed, “but it’s fine,” he says. “I’ve lost a lot of awards.” (Katherine took it harder. “She was sitting there beside me, grinning through her teeth, going, ‘I’m about to Kanye this thing.’ ”)

“But here’s what irked me,” says Church. In a press conference afterward, Brooks admitted he’d lip-synced his performance that night. He said he was in the midst of 12 shows in 10 days and his voice just wasn’t there. “That pissed me off,” says Church. “To me, lip-syncing is and always will be a red line. It’s fabricated. I don’t want young artists thinking it’s OK, because it’s not.”

What made it even worse was the category: Entertainer of the Year. “So the winner of the biggest category of the night lip-synced in the biggest moment on the show?” says Church, getting heated all over again. “Fuck that! And I didn’t like his excuse at all. I felt like he was speaking for the other nominees. I can speak for myself – I’m not lip-syncing. If I can’t sing, I won’t sing, or I’ll sing badly. But at least you’ll get what you get.”

As his arena tour was winding down last year, Church noticed that his hands were tingling a lot. “I just associated it with nerves,” he says. “I didn’t think it was anything.” But then in June, he was back home in North Carolina and noticed something strange. “I was watching the College World Series and texting about golf,” he says. “And this hand” – he holds up his left hand – “was not responding like it should.” He looked at his arm, and it appeared a little swollen. “So I peeled my shirt off and went in the bathroom, and my arm was noticeably red and enlarged.”

He’d heard about thrombosis on airplanes, so he Googled “thrombosis of the arm.” “And I had five out of five symptoms,” he says. Katherine was in Nashville, so, he says he did what any man would do: He handed the baby monitors to the nanny, poured a Jack and Diet Coke in a red Solo cup and drove himself to the hospital. The doctors told him he needed an ultrasound, but the closest one was in Boone, another 25 minutes away. So Church had them wrap up the IV in his arm, put his jacket back on and drove himself to Boone.

“By this time, it’s near 5 a.m.,” he says. He was starting to consider the worst-case scenario. “I was thinking about my family and kids, and how I wanted to make it back home. But I was also thinking about the tour, and what we went through. I looked back and I honestly felt pretty satisfied that I couldn’t have given another thing.”

After what felt like an eternity, the doctor gave him the ultrasound results: He had a blood clot in his chest. He needed surgery immediately. “I said, ‘Can it kill me?’ And he said, ‘Today.’ And I said, ‘I need to make a phone call.’ ”

Church called his wife and a few other contacts who made arrangements to get him admitted to Duke University Hospital. He couldn’t take a helicopter there, because the vibrations and pressure might dislodge the clot. So doctors gave him blood thinners and sent him off in the back of an ambulance. By the time he arrived, Church had been up for 36 hours.

“They took me into the ICU and I thought, ‘OK, I’m gonna go to bed, get up in the morning and do this thing,’ ” he says. “But when I walk in the room, the surgical team is there and the [doctor’s] in scrubs. He says, ‘We’re gonna go now.’ That was really when it hit me. To them, I was going to die.”

Church later learned he had a birth defect in which his topmost rib was too close to his collarbone. “It’s called thoracic outlet syndrome,” he says. “There’s a major vein that runs through there, and when I would raise my arm, it would pinch it and damage the vein. The clot was where it tried to heal. But it kept backing up, backing up. And like any clot, when you get enough pressure, it’s gonna blow.”

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Church headlining the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, two days before the shooting. Church fans were among the victims. “It wrecked me in a lot of ways,” he says. Photo: David Becker/Getty David Becker/Getty

The doctors told Church he was very lucky. “Normally, if you’re athletic, you’ll start having issues at 21, 22, 23,” he says. But with people his age they don’t usually find out until it’s too late. “They just fall over in the shower.”

Church was in recovery for three days. A week later, doctors took out his top rib. He spent the rest of the summer doing rehab and physical therapy, then went back on the road in September. He hasn’t said anything publicly about what happened until now. “It was an interesting summer,” he says.

He pulls down his collar and shows me his two long white scars. The nerves aren’t quite healed but, so far, there’s been no long-term damage. “I can still play guitar,” he says. “And I play golf better than ever.”

Church is getting hungry for a burger, so we hop in his pickup – a Chevy Silverado with a few dollars’ worth of crusty change in the armrest and a hatchet in the bed. It used to be his city truck, but Katherine made him retire it to the farm, so at the gate we switch over to his Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, an SUV with a muscle-car engine. “It’ll do zero to 60 in 3.7,” Church says. “Want to try it?” He guns the engine and we enter hyperspace, just as an oncoming car crests the hill. “If that’s a cop,” Church says, “we’re going to jail.”

On the way, he talks about where he came from. He grew up in a little town in North Carolina called Granite Falls, two doors down from his grandparents. “Typical small-town Middle America,” he says. His mom was a kindergarten teacher; his dad started out employed in a lumberyard and worked his way up to president of a local furniture company. But when the company relocated to China, Church’s dad lost his job. Other local manufacturers moved overseas, too, and Granite Falls hollowed out. “The town was destroyed,” he says. “Everybody in town was out of work.”

Church sings a version of this story on the new album’s “Drowning Man,” a jukebox lament for what he sees as the overlooked America, “the people that run the country, that make it work”:

“We put the smoke in the stack,

Put the seed in the ground,

While Lady Liberty turns her back,

And Uncle Sam just turns around.”

“I’ve seen it happen,” Church says. “I’ve seen people who lost their jobs, lost their homes, who felt like they didn’t have a voice. So when the [2016] election happened, I was not as surprised as maybe other people were.”

Church didn’t vote for Trump in 2016. In fact, he didn’t vote for anyone. He voted for Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008. He didn’t vote in 2012, but says President Obama didn’t do anything to lose him. (“I met him once,” he says. “Found him nothing but great.”)

Given the choice between Clinton and Trump, Church opted to sit it out. “Hillary just bored me” he says. “I just didn’t see much.” His wife voted for Trump and tried to get him to vote too. “Ain’t gonna happen,” he says. “I don’t want to vote for somebody I’ll regret voting for.”

What does he think of Trump so far? “I’m conflicted,” he says. “I like that he’s thrown a monkey wrench into things. I think that chaos is good. I enjoyed the North Korea thing. Why haven’t we talked to that guy? Tariffs, I don’t know yet. I don’t want a trade war, but I’ll walk with him down that road a little farther.” At the same time, “I have a ton of problems with him,” he says. “I don’t like the racial overtones. I hate the tweeting. It seems insecure, petty, not presidential.”

Church is a student of history as well as a voracious reader. He says he gets most of his news online, from CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post. And though Church leans to the right on things like small government and taxes (“I make a lot of money,” he explains), he’s fairly progressive on other issues.

On abortion rights: “I’m a pro-life guy at heart, but I don’t think we should change the law. Some things you shouldn’t govern.”

On climate change and clean energy: “If we’re not thinking about that as our future, we’ve completely lost our minds.”

On the NFL protests: “I was taught by my father to take my hat off [for the anthem], but if somebody wants to do something different, it’s not my place to tell them not to. That’s how the Constitution works.”

On immigration: “I believe there’s a better way to handle it, but we’re a country of immigrants, and we always should be.”

On the day we’re talking, the outcry against the Trump administration’s family-
separation border policy is reaching a fever pitch, and photos of terrified children are all over the news. Church is furious. “I’ll tell you what I’m against,” he says, jaw clenched. “You never separate kids from their families. Never, ever, ever. You want to deport them, deport them. But this is wrong. It’s horrific. It’s child abuse, as far as I can tell. When I see a crying kid separated from their parents, I don’t give a shit what you have to say. No fucking chance.”

Church says a lot of country-music fans and artists are on the same page as him. “I believe most of them feel the way I do – regardless of their voter registration.” He says he doesn’t trust politicians on either side. He thinks most are in the pockets of Big Banks, Big Pharma, Big Oil. On another new song, a slithery spoken-word jam called “The Snake,” he spins an allegory about the two-party system:

“Rattlesnake, copperhead,

Either one of them kill you dead.

We stay hungry, they get fed. . . .

And the whole world’s burning down.”

“Some of this stuff you look at and go, ‘What the fuck? Why is this hard?’ ” an exasperated Church says. “Why can we not get infrastructure done? Why don’t we do more clean energy? Why are [prescription] drugs so expensive? Because it’s a lobbyist-based system. It’s a money-based system. Either way, we’re fucked.” I ask, half-kidding, if he was a Bernie guy. To my surprise, Church lights up. “I love Bernie,” he says. “Bernie had a great message. It’s funny: If it had been Bernie versus Trump, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I would’ve at least thought about it more than I did.”

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Joe Pugliese for Rolling Stone

BACK AT THE LAND, we board the tour bus for a nightcap. Church mixes himself a Jack and Coke Zero and sips it slow. He says life is pretty good. Peyton Manning is his golf buddy and Willie Nelson tells him jokes. Katherine is designing a brand-new house for them, and he just got to introduce his son to Thriller and the moonwalk. It’s been years since he got in a fight, and he can’t even remember the last time he lost his temper.

He knows the last time he cried, though. That one’s easy. “Vegas,” he says.

Last September, Church was in Las Vegas to headline the Route 91 Harvest festival. It was Friday night – his last show of the year. He was just thankful to be there, after the summer he’d been through. He got onstage, he says, “and it was one of the best shows I’ve had, everyone was smiling. I was trying to freeze that night, going, ‘This is it – hell of a year.’ I jumped down during ‘Springsteen’ and shook hands: ‘I don’t know when I’ll see you again, but thank you so much for this year and for my life.’ ”

Two nights later, Church was back home when he got a text: active shooter in Vegas. He turned on the news and started seeing the horror.

“It’s selfish of me,” he says. “But my first thought was, ‘I hope it’s not our fans.’ We had a lot of fans there. We even promoted online travel options to make it easier for people to come. I felt like the bait: People come to see you play, then all of a sudden they die? That is not an emotion that I was prepared to deal with. It wrecked me in a lot of ways.” In the end, 58 people were killed and more than 800 were injured that night. Several members of Church’s fan club were among the victims. One fan, 29-year-old Sonny Melton, who’d come all the way from Tennessee with his wife, was buried in an Eric Church T-shirt. “It got dark for me for a while,” Church says. “I went through a period, a funk, for six months at least. I had anger. I’ve still got anger. Something broke in me that night, and it still hasn’t healed. There’s a part of me that hopes it haunts me forever.”

“It was a motherfucker on him,” says Church’s manager, John Peets. “Really hard. I think it just opened up an awareness of how fragile all this really is.”

Church isn’t a gun nut, but he does own about half a dozen: rifles, shotguns, pistols – no AR-15s, though. I ask if Vegas changed his feelings about guns. “A little,” he says. He takes another sip of whiskey. “I’m a Second Amendment guy,” he says. “That’s in the Constitution, it’s people’s right, and I don’t believe it’s negotiable. But nobody should have that many guns and that much ammunition and we don’t know about it. Nobody should have 21 AKs and 10,000 rounds of ammunition and we don’t know who they are. Something’s gotta be done so that a person can’t have an armory and pin down a Las Vegas SWAT team for six minutes. That’s fucked up.”

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With his wife, Katherine, in 2015. Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty

Church says he supports a few common-sense reforms. Closing gun-show loopholes. Improving background checks. Banning bump stocks. “As a gun guy, the number of rounds [the shooter] fired was un-fucking-believable to me,” he says. “I saw a video on YouTube from the police officer’s vest cam, and it sounded like an army was up there. I don’t think our forefathers ever thought the right to bear arms was that.

“There are some things we can’t stop,” he adds. “Like the disgruntled kid who takes his dad’s shotgun and walks into a high school. But we could have stopped the guy in Vegas.” As for why nothing’s been done? “I blame the lobbyists. And the biggest in the gun world is the NRA.”

Church says he’s not a member of the NRA and never has been. “I’m a Second Amendment guy,” he emphasizes again, “but I feel like they’ve been a bit of a roadblock. I don’t care who you are – you shouldn’t have that kind of power over elected officials. To me it’s cut-and-dried: The gun-show [loophole] would not exist if it weren’t for the NRA, so at this point in time, if I was an NRA member, I would think I had more of a problem than the solution. I would question myself real hard about what I wanted to be in the next three, four, five years.”

Church knows he’ll get blowback from some fans for this. “I don’t care,” he says. “Right’s right and wrong’s wrong. I don’t understand why we have to fear a group [like the NRA]. It’s asinine. Why can’t we come together and solve one part of this? Start with the bump stocks and the gun shows. Shut a couple of these down. I do think that will matter a little bit. I think it will save some lives.”

IT’S GETTING LATE, and Church wants to get the bus rolling back to North Carolina so he can be there when his kids wake up. He takes a last sip of whiskey and walks me to the door. “I enjoyed this,” he says. “I feel like these things need to be discussed. That’s the problem with this country. We don’t talk to each other enough. We dig in, we don’t listen and we don’t talk.”

He wishes we could be more like the crowds he sees at shows. “That’s where music is very appealing to me,” he says. “At a concert, we all are unified, we all pull on the rope in one way. That’s the most powerful thing in the universe to me.

“When I play a show, I don’t believe everything the people in the audience do, and vice versa,” he says, grinning. “But we have a hell of a Saturday night.”