Holding His Own: Eric Church Delivers Two Passionate Performances
as Artist-in-Residence for the Museum
Eric Church’s current exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Eric Church: Country Heart, Restless Soul, traces the artist’s uncompromising path to stardom through significant personal items. On Tuesday and Wednesday night (August 29 and 30), as the Museum’s 2023 artist-in-residence and performing for sell-out crowds, Church traced that same path as only he can: through song.
“It’s time to stop, reflect, and take stock of his remarkable journey, and that’s what we’re going to do tonight,” country music journalist, author, and historian Robert K. Oermann—who MC’d Church’s debut album release event at the Museum back in 2006—explained to Wednesday’s crowd before Church took the stage. “You’ll be hearing a country music master at the peak of his powers.”
From a stool onstage at the Museum’s CMA Theater, skillfully playing one of several guitars he used throughout each performance, Church offered eighteen songs over about seventy-five minutes—a nearly chronological journey through both his career and his song catalog. The show began with a brand-new song, “On the Road,” which Church had debuted only a few weeks earlier. Inspired by a photo of Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson—two of Church’s musical heroes—walking offstage, the song finds Church reflecting on the vagabond life of a traveling musician. “They say it never ends, but I know one day I’ll do anything to do it all again,” he sings in the chorus.
Throughout both evenings, Church was surrounded by many who have taken this journey with him. Music industry members who have watched Church’s career flourish—and those who helped make it happen—dotted the crowds. Behind him onstage sat his longtime band—guitarists Jeff Cease and Driver Williams, bassist Lee Hendricks, multi-instrumentalist Jeff Hyde, and drummer Craig Wright—nestled tightly in a back corner as they would have been in Church’s barroom days. On the opposite side of the stage, keyboard player Billy Justineau and background vocalists Whitney Coleman, Stephcynie Curry, and April Rucker helped fill up the space and fill out the sound.
Also onstage with Church was a single large video screen, rendered as an old-fashioned television set. Between songs, it crackled to life to help flesh out the story through excerpts from harsh reviews Church received at the start of his career, voicemail messages from his record label and management, and reports on the tragedies that changed his life’s course. Church sat in silence as the brief video segments played, then strummed into the next song as they finished.
Comments delivered via the video screen about Church’s firing from a 2006 Rascal Flatts tour for playing too long and too loud during his opening sets led into “Sinners Like Me,” the title track of his debut album. A dramatized voicemail from Capitol Records warning Church to “get something going” was answered by one of the first songs he cut for his breakthrough album: “Country Music Jesus,” a deeper cut from 2011’s Chief. Grudging sound bites of praise from journalists (including one describing Church and his music as “weird by conventional wisdom, but destined for greatness nonetheless”) introduced selections from Mr. Misunderstood, the album Church surprise-released in 2015.
These are the lighter chapters of Church’s story, and they were celebrated as examples of a rebellious streak that helped Church become one of country music’s most revered rule-breakers. But the shows also steered into darker moments: a life-saving emergency surgery Church underwent in 2017; the mass shooting at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, which Church headlined two nights before; and the 2018 death of his younger brother, Brandon. The six songs Church selected to help tell this part of the story made for a powerful back half of the shows.
Among those half-dozen songs was “Why Not Me,” which Church wrote immediately after the Route 91 tragedy and had performed only once before, just days later, at the Grand Ole Opry. Wednesday night’s performance completely quieted the crowd, while Tuesday night’s audience met it with a standing ovation that they kept up as an unmistakable figure emerged from the backstage shadows: Vince Gill. On both nights, the Country Music Hall of Fame member delivered soaring renditions of his song “Go Rest High on That Mountain” in Brandon Church’s honor. On Tuesday night, Church could be seen wiping away tears as he watched from backstage.
The audiences found plenty of reasons to rise to their feet and show their appreciation. They cheered their favorite lines (“On the day I die, I know where I’m gonna go / Me and Jesus got that part worked out” in “Sinners Like Me”), lifted their hands when a certain line in “Mr. Misunderstood” called for it, and on the second night in particular much of the crowd sang along to nearly every song Church performed.
From his stool, Church sang with intense focus and passion. He brimmed with an arena’s worth of energy, nearly hovering out of his seat by the time he and the audience reached the last chorus of “Carolina” both nights.
Toward the end of each evening, after delivering two songs from his 2021 triple album, Heart & Soul, Church offered his first words of the shows to the audiences. “This has been,” he said on Tuesday night, taking a long pause and then laughing, “something.”
“It was tough at times, but you know what? That’s our life. That’s our career. And everything you saw tonight is who we are,” he continued. “And that’s, unbelievably, how we got in this room. But it has been the greatest honor of my life to do this.”
On Wednesday night, Church focused on the power music holds: “I have gotten through everything in my life through music,” he said. “That’s my therapy . . . and that’s what tonight was about.”
Church closed both performances with the Mr. Misunderstood album cut “Holdin’ My Own”—what he now says is his favorite song in his catalog. The song is about settling down and cherishing your time with loved ones, but there was another message that inspired Church’s fans to holler in affirmation.
“If I’m proof of anything,” he sang, “God sure loves troubadours.”
Eric Church’s 2023 Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Artist-in-Residence Set List:
- “On the Road”
- “How ’Bout You”
- “Sinners Like Me”
- “Smoke a Little Smoke”
- “Country Music Jesus”
- “Give Me Back My Hometown”
- “Mr. Misunderstood”
- “Record Year”
- “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young”
- “Some of It”
- “Why Not Me”
- “Go Rest High on That Mountain” (performed by Vince Gill)
- “Never Break Heart”
- “Through My Ray-Bans”
- “Holdin’ My Own”
Photos: Eric Church
- Cowboy Jack Clement
- Earl Scruggs
- Tom T. Hall
- Guy Clark
- Kris Kristofferson
- Jerry Douglas
- Vince Gill
- Buddy Miller
- Connie Smith
- Kenny Rogers
- Ricky Skaggs
- Alan Jackson
- Rosanne Cash
- Jason Isbell
- Miranda Lambert
- Marty Stuart
- John Prine