The sunglasses weren’t originally a fashion statement: While playing four-hour sets in bars, Church’s contact lenses dried up because of the smoke and stage lights. Someone suggested sunglasses to block the light. It worked and had the added benefit of making him look like a badass.
Without the glasses and hat, fans don’t recognize him. This afternoon he put on a T-shirt and shorts and ran a few miles near the beachfront venue while the parking lot filled with partiers playing his music in their trucks. No one spotted him.
“When it’s showtime, I better be the baddest motherfucker on the planet. And a lot of it, honestly, has to do with the hat and sunglasses. They put me in a different mode mentally. Take them off, and I’m not in that mode,” Church says. “Now, if people say that’s crazy, fair enough. I know that probably sounds like I need medication. Maybe I do.”
He bought the Von Dutch cap about five years ago for $6 at a truck stop in Mississippi and has worn it at every show since. He’s tried to find an identical replacement cap, but it doesn’t exist. He searched on the internet. He contacted Von Dutch, which has no record of manufacturing the cap. It’s either a cheap knockoff or a magical talisman right out of The Twilight Zone: Mississippi.
Church says he fought with his record company about his look. “You have good hair,” they told him, “and good-looking eyes. The girls want to see them!” But since he was wearing the cap and sunglasses onstage, he wanted to wear them in photos and videos for consistency. So Church ignored the label.
He has even tried to duplicate the hat. “We had a designer come in—I can’t believe I’m telling you this. We had a designer try to duplicate the hat,” Church says.
“Do you wash the hat?” I ask.
“No, I do not. Katherine, my wife, has tried. No, no, no, I—I can’t,” Church stammers. “I mean, if something happened to the hat….” His voice trails off as he ponders the hypothetical tragedy.
“When you’re not onstage, where’s the hat?”
“I’m afraid to tell you.” He laughs. “There’s a place on the bus. We made a little cubby for the hat.”
I have to ask: “Can I put the hat on?”
“No. Hell no. It’s locked up. It’s in bed. It’s asleep.”
During tonight’s show, which I watch from the soundboard, the manager of one of the opening acts says he’s seen an average of three or four fights per night. A large part of Church’s success has come from filling a niche in the country market for a rugged, masculine singer. Among Garth Brooks’s other achievements, he converted a lot of women to country music, and by 1997 radio programmers referred to country as a “female format.”
Because women were listening to country radio, the stations played a lot of songs they thought women would like. Because the stations were playing songs they thought women would like, record companies signed singers they thought women would like. In the old days, a photo of the 10 top country singers would look like a convict lineup. These days it might look like an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog shot.
Among hardcore traditionalists, this change hasn’t been popular. One highly trafficked country website routinely erupts in insults aimed at handsome singer Luke Bryan, who’s apparently perceived as too feminine. The blogger who runs the site has referred to Bryan as a woman, claimed the singer has a vagina and alluded to Bryan as gay.
“When we started,” Church explains, “male country fans were being ignored. I hunt. I fish. I drink beer and watch football. I love NASCAR. I’m a guy’s guy.”
His concerts are loud and heavy on pyro and go well with alcohol. Kip Moore, one of Church’s opening acts, says, “I drank a whole lot more than usual during that tour. Watching Eric made me want to drink. You’re not gonna see a lot of alcohol at a Carrie Underwood concert. But an Eric Church show creates rowdiness. I don’t think there’s a deep science to that: Testosterone and alcohol don’t mix, and that causes fights.”
In the middle of his second encore, Church sings “These Boots” (another song that mentions weed), and fans hold up their boots in celebration. One fan near the stage gets a little carried away, tosses a boot onstage, then climbs up to retrieve it. “We’ve got a climber,” a crew member shouts into a walkie-talkie. The one-booted climber isn’t arrested, but he is tossed out of the arena.
While watching Church’s set that night, Moore saw a couple screwing in the audience. “A guy pulled a girl’s skirt up, and the dirty deed was going on,” Moore reports. “That was a first for me.”
It’s not a first for Church. He recounts a show last year in Battle Creek, Michigan where “half the crowd was fighting. And I saw guys who had girls bent over the rail, screwing.” His lighting designer—a guy who’d toured with nearly every major metal band, including Van Halen, Metallica and Guns N’ Roses—was shocked. “He said to me, ‘You should call this the Fucking and Fighting Tour.’”
Compared with Battle Creek’s, tonight’s audience doesn’t impress Church much. “There wasn’t mass bedlam, which is what I usually see.” Tomorrow will be wilder, he predicts.
“These boots have counted off many a band,/Playing one-night roadhouse stands for tips in empty rooms.”
When he wasn’t auditioning for the school play by singing a Garth Brooks song, Church played basketball at South Caldwell High School in North Carolina, and he’s studied the state’s greatest hoops player, Michael Jordan. In particular he likes Jordan’s 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech, a smirking 20-minute tirade in which Jordan taunted everyone who ever doubted him, including his two brothers.
“I’ve never seen a person hold grudges like that. And I like that, because I carry a hell of a chip on my shoulder.” Like Jordan, Church has memorized a list of those who stood in his way. “I carry that list onstage with me. If you don’t have a chip on your shoulder, you’re just happy to be there, and I fucking hate that.”
And then he starts to tell the story of what happened when he moved to Nashville.
“I come from a long line of sinners like me.”
“Sinners Like Me,” about coming from a family of badasses, is the Church song that’s closest to autobiography. One of the singer’s grandfathers was chief of police in Granite Falls for 28 years. Everyone called him Chief, which is also Church’s nickname. “But he was the kind of chief of police that partied. He was a good old boy.”
Chief came from a family of moonshiners who brewed white lightning and sold it in nearby counties. On the other side of Church’s family were the Stillwells, who “are notorious where I’m from,” he says. “They were rough and did a lot of fighting—drunk fighting. The Stillwells were big, like six-foot-six and six-foot-seven. They would get drunk and beat up everybody in a bar.”
But Chief had been a boxer in the Navy. “And he was the only guy who could whip the Stillwells’ asses.” So one side of his family regularly fought with, and arrested, the other side. “He’d beat up the Stillwells, get them in cuffs, put them in jail, and when they sobered up, he’d let them go. So yeah, I am from a long line of sinners.”
After high school Church wanted to move to Nashville and become a professional songwriter. His dad, a disciplined businessman, promised to fund Church’s first six months there if he graduated from college first. So Church went to Appalachian State and formed a cover band, the Mountain Boys, with his brother and a few friends. His first semester, his grade point average was 0.7. He was kicked out of school a few times, “but when I had to get an A in calculus, I got an A.” It took him six and a half years to get a degree in marketing while playing clubs six nights a week. As he tells the story, it’s unclear what this has to do with the chip on his shoulder.
Church spent a lot of late nights in brown-bag clubs, where patrons bring their own liquor. One night a girl was flirting with his brother during a song, which was fine until her husband noticed and charged the stage. Eric told his brother, who’d been a football lineman, “Go take care of it. Take him outside. Just be back by the next song.” His brother came back, a little disheveled, but in time. Years of experiences like that, Church says, turned him from a good kid into a troublemaker.
“When you have to whip their ass during a song, that’s fucking weird,” he says.
He’d been the best songwriter in Granite Falls, so after he moved to Nashville, he assumed he’d step into an open-mike night and quickly be discovered and showered with garlands. “I was so fucking naive,” he says. “I got my head handed to me. It was rough.” His best song at the time was “Sitting in the Middle of Love.”
“Fucking terrible. Don’t laugh,” he says. “It was about a town called Love, Texas.”
He worked at the Shop at Home network, taking phone orders on the night shift at a call center. One night when the network was peddling a $49.99 set of knives, “a guy called me, drunker than hell, at three a.m.,” Church remembers. “He says, ‘I’ve just got to have those knives.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you go to bed. If you wake up in the morning and still want them, I’ll take your credit card.’ They monitor the calls, so after he hung up, I got fired. That was the lowest point.” It’s still not clear what a set of knives has to do with the chip on Church’s shoulder.
A good Nashville song combines structure, a series of hooks, narrative shifts and small twists on familiar phrases. It seems easy but requires a high level of cleverness, which is one reason Bon Jovi’s country album was laughable. Church was learning the craft, but he was broke and discouraged. Even when people in Nashville liked his songs, they told him no one would record them. His engagement to a girl back in North Carolina had fallen apart. His hometown friends had careers and wives and fully formed adult lives. Church had an acoustic guitar and a rented apartment.
“It was like, Fuck this. I was ready to go home. There was one publishing company that had been courting me, and I’d had meeting after meeting with the second in command. I finally got to meet the guy in charge, and I played him four songs. During my last song, he stopped me. I thought, This is it; this is the moment I get a deal. And he said, ‘I don’t know where you’re from, but I’d go back there. I don’t ever see these songs working in Nashville.’”
Church walked to his car, listened to Kris Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil”—about a broke and busted songwriter who’s been spurned by Nashville—and decided it was time to go back to North Carolina. He thought about leaving that night, but his brother had moved to Nashville, so the two went out and got drunk. The next morning, Church got a call from Sony Tree Publishing, which signed him to a songwriting contract and launched his career.
Church would have missed that call if he had listened to the expert who told him to go back home. And now Church comes to the point of his story: “I mean, you talk about the list? That guy is on the fucking list.”
After he got a record deal, other obstacles blocked his way for five years, from indifferent crowds to club owners who refused to pay what they owed the band. (One night in Idaho, Church took revenge by spray-painting the venue’s brand-new fence.)
“Most sane people would have said, ‘This is stupid. This is no way to live.’ We ain’t bathed, we’re eating Doritos, and we’re in El Paso on a Wednesday night.” He laughs. “The coveted Wednesday night show in El Paso. But it beats the shit out of Shop at Home, I’m telling you. And it puts gravel in your gut.” Church says he was a well-behaved kid when he left North Carolina; people back home “are shocked what I turned into.”
After they did about 50 shows together, Kip Moore realized Church was performing every night with a chip on his shoulder.
“He never talked to me about it, but you can tell it’s there,” Moore says. “You think about the years of frustration, the shit-hole gigs you played, the people who shot you down. All that stuff festers inside you until you’re out to prove something. ‘I told all you motherfuckers what I was gonna do. And now I’m gonna show you.’ I don’t blame him one bit.”
“You sing about Johnny Cash;/The Man in Black would’ve whipped your ass.”
It’s a Saturday night in Birmingham, and 11,000 people are filing into the local arena. Fans are eight deep at the merchandise tables, choosing among different tour T-shirts. Some have human skulls, many feature pot leaves, and one says Eric Fucking Church. The guy who designs Church’s merchandise came up with the idea after seeing him in concert, thinking, That’s the gist of the show—Eric fucking Church. At first the idea was rejected as too profane. Now it’s his top-selling shirt.
Wearing his sunglasses and Von Dutch cap, chewing gum and carrying a cup of JD and Coke, Church strides briskly into a small conference room and plays two acoustic songs for about 100 people who paid $200 each for a VIP package. “You’re so hot!” a woman yells. He encourages the fans to drink a lot and sing loud tonight. After six minutes, he’s done, his drink back in his hand. He proceeds quickly to a room with a private bar and snacks, and schmoozes with local radio DJs. When that’s over, he washes his hands thoroughly.
Last year Church created a stir by denouncing reality-TV singing competitions as fraudulent. This prompted angry tweets from Blake Shelton, a judge on The Voice, and his wife, Miranda Lambert, who was a contestant on Nashville Star. Church’s argument has some validity—Lambert writes and sings great songs, but Shelton is better as comic relief than as an artist—but he’d broken a cardinal rule of Nashville: If you talk shit about people, do it behind their backs, not in public. One country radio personality accused him of trying to be “the Kanye West of country music.” As a result, my meeting with Church was postponed several months until the uproar passed.
“Everybody flipped the fuck out because I said it the wrong way,” Church says. “But I don’t have anything to apologize for. I’ve been kind of a lone wolf, and I’m okay with not having a lot of friends in the community.” His point was this: A TV show that offers a shortcut is a sham; artists have to tour, endure, learn and get tough and angry. And if he sees Shelton or Lambert at an awards show? Church shrugs. “I’ll probably say hello. Or not.”
Of the 11,000 people inside the Birmingham arena tonight, 10,500 seem drunk. The other 500 are security. Some people are fighting, some are celebrating, and it’s hard to tell which is which. The last song in Church’s set is “Springsteen,” an unusual song (it doesn’t really have a chorus) that ties music to memory and romanticizes the idea of a superstar songwriter and performer. In his shows, Church—a huge Bruce Springsteen fan—adds a bit of “Born to Run” at the song’s end. Again, the admiration is mutual: Bruce Springsteen wrote a fan letter to Church on the back of an old set list. It ends, “I hope we cross paths along the way.” Church keeps the letter in a locked drawer at home.
When the concert is over and the fans are back home and the roadies are loading out the stage, Church is inside his tour bus. It’s two a.m., and he switches from whiskey to water so he doesn’t ruin his voice. He was happy with tonight’s crowd, but he’s brooding about a show he did about four years earlier, when he was scuffling and headed for failure, at a Birmingham club called WorkPlay.
“It probably held 200 people, and I couldn’t even fill it.” He remembers the exact number of people who showed up: 126. Church doesn’t forget these things.