CROWD PLEASER: Eric Church’s “Gather Again Tour” is scheduled to start in September. (Getty Images)

With a truckload of new songs and a plan for the coronavirus, the country star is ready to get back to work

“The longer we go without shows and getting together with people we share common ground with, whether it’s sports or gambling or music, those things make us human and bind us together,” Eric Church begins, anchoring his vehemence to tour in 2021. “Because we don’t have those things now, it’s very isolationist and tribalist, and that, in my opinion, is every bit as dangerous as the virus is.

“I think the sooner we can get back to putting our arms around each other, the better. When I look out at 20,000 people, I have no idea if you’re a Democrat, or a Republican, or independent, or whatever. At that moment, we’re all about that song and that moment. 

“That is the humanity of that. And that’s what’s been the biggest travesty of (the COVID-19 crisis). And the vaccine has been the biggest, quickest and most normal way back. That’s how we get back to normal. I really believe that.”

Church has always been a passionate artist. One who colors outside the lines, he bucks trends and does what he believes is right for the equally passionate Church Choir, his followers who have supported him since his days playing rock clubs, making a more fierce, working-class country than was on the radio.

Known for singles like “Homeboy,” “Kill a Word” or “Put That in Your Country Song,” which challenge the “feel good” country mainstream, Church used his music to get real, to push back against a status quo most people privately acknowledge but wouldn’t dare speak about. He can deliver hits — “Springsteen,” “Drink in My Hand” and “Talladega” remain recurrent favorites — that give him a place on the Country Countdown shows, but songs like “Smoke a Little Smoke,” “These Boots” and “Mr. Misunderstood” embrace the outliers who became the committed audience making Church a double-draw arena headliner, playing back-to-back shows in every city on his 2019 Double Down Tour, as well as a record-setting solo stand at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium.

Yes, Nissan Stadium. 

In Church, we’re talking a touring superstar with a gargantuan draw. His average gross and attendance over his last 36 months of touring, per market stop, are a whopping $2,357,089 and 25,896 tickets, respectively, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports. Those are stadium numbers, even though he’s hitting mostly arenas, thanks to the double-down two-nighters. At Nashville’s Nissan, his highest draw, he pulled in $5.8 million and broke an attendance record. 

There, in Music City, it was Church with guitar on one strut, the incredible Joanna Cotten across the field on the other, a stark but powerful “Drowning Man” to start an unbelievable night. That kind of moxie endeared Church to the working guys, those who live below true middle class yet bring it hard each day. Mention the rebel thing, and the guy who got kicked off a Rascal Flatts tour laughs.

“That was a long time ago. I mean, we still have rebel tendencies … but we’ve grown. Early on, it fit more than it does now, but I don’t ever look at it as, ‘Hey, I need to rebel against this.’ I never really have. It’s just what I do, which doesn’t always fit in a box.

“If you look back on my career, I’ve never been that guy who wants to be the rebel, the tough guy who ruffles feathers. Though I’ve sometimes done that either with my words or my songs or what I’ve done because I believe that’s what I should sing or write or say or do.” 

THE SHADOW KNOWS: “We have to get back to normal,” Church says. “The longer we stay in this, the more this becomes normal.” (Getty Images)

That’s why Church made the decision he would tour in 2021. Never mind his show being suited to arenas, that it would be fall before they’d be able to play, or myriad unknown factors that keep changing. Church was resolute: He was taking the music back out to the people — 2021 or bust.

“We have to get back to normal,” he reasons. “The longer we stay in this, the more this becomes normal. The more strange normal will seem … and I’ve not sensed any hesitation, something we paid enormous attention to, especially with my core group early on, that makes me think about strategy.

“That’s where I went back to the Louies (Messina of MTG) and the Johns (Peets of Q Prime South), and said, ‘Listen: we’re doing this.’ I’m committed, my band and crew are committed. It’s going to be hard and expensive, but we’re going to lead the charge and play this fall. That was enough for me; once I saw they were committed, I was more committed.

“But it was amazing that people’s jaws would drop when you’d say, ‘Fall, 2021.’” He gets some people’s concern. Granularly, though, it doesn’t compute.

“I understood it intellectually, but I would say to them, ‘Think about where we went from February of 2020 to April of 2020, 60 days. So, I think it’s unfair to go, ‘Well, it’s only four or five months, which is a long time, especially in the COVID world.’”

Much is unknown about municipal restrictions, but Sept. 17 at Lexington, Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, the “Gather Again Tour” is on. He echoes his own words, reemphasizing, “The longer we stay in this social isolation, the more it becomes normal.”

Church was on the mic, recording what would become the double-disc plus an exclusive EP for the Church Choir Heart & Soul, when he first heard about COVID-19.

“Somebody in the room said, ‘Have you heard about this virus?’ I remember saying, ‘What are you talking about?’ They said, ‘There’s this virus that comes from China,’ and we all started talking about it.

“I’d been isolated, working on the record. Who knew this would change our world the way it has?”

Musically, Church has stuck to his always unexpected ways. Trickling music out over the last year, keeping fans engaged, he offered the hard-charging “Put That in Your Country Song,” the woman-recognizing “Bad Mother Trucker,” the Muscle Shoals sultry “Never Break Heart” from a different breed of lockdown sessions that Church and longtime producer Jay Joyce staged in an empty North Carolina restaurant.

Writing all day with varying co-writers, playing together in the moment, the 24 songs managed to self-select into Heart, Soul and &. “The interesting thing for me was to just take the word ‘heart’ — I didn’t realize I’d written about heart so many times, but there was ‘Heart on Fire,’ ‘Heart of the Night,’ ‘Never Break Heart.’ It didn’t occur to me there were these themes coming through. People get to see this through-line instead of me just coming into a songwriting session where everybody’s bringing their ideas that day. 

“These were written days apart in the same place, and we were there together. I didn’t edit what I showed, whatever came out, maybe we put it on Heart or & or Soul, but those 28 days are what this is. I saw the vulnerability of this, but I wasn’t thinking about that. This record removed a self-conscious thing that I had to be a certain way, cut a certain way, have a certain song. This one was where I’m playing with my vocal, or doing Sly & the Family Stone shit. It’s just having fun; people in the studio are laughing. You can hear it on the tracks.”

In a year of double albums, it might seem like lockdown creative excess. For Church, it’s more fuel for his live fire. Known for exhaustive shows, with no opening act and an intermission, Heart & Soul serves as even more truths for nightly setlists that move around his catalog — as well as over 100 covers — at a whim.

“That’s our DNA,” Church explains. “That’s where we all came from, because when I think (about what we are), we’re a blue-collar soul band. That’s where we came from, those blue-collar towns and bars. That’s kind of how we came up: in the bars, theaters, clawing your way, chip on your shoulder, not making any money for years, can’t get radio to participate. You’re an outcast, so I identify so much with that personality, it’s always going to come out of me.”

A fan of Springsteen and the Grateful Dead, Church and his band put a premium on flexibility. “Some of the greatest shows I’ve seen by each of those artists, you get to hear a song you’ve not heard in years, or a year or two. You’re going, ‘Damn! They played that!’ It makes the show special and fun, and you talk about it later.

“With these three records, this project gives us more of a chance to do that than in any time. What I’m committed to, in a way a lot of artists aren’t, is: I’m committed to play ’em. A lot of artists with 30 No. 1s, they’ll play 21 of them and not go into the deeper cuts. But there’s been a number of shows where we’ll play the deeper cuts before we’ll play the No. 1s.

“So we’re playing by ourselves,” he continues, savoring the notion. “The fun thing is, if I’m a fan, the set lists are going to be wildly different nightly now, because we’re adding 24, 25 songs — and there was already a lot of material. It’s a way to put these gems in there, maybe play a few things people don’t think … 

“I do think there are some new staples, like ‘Heart on Fire,’ but wherever we go from there? If you give me an entire palette to play on, if you listen to an entire album, you know those quieter things live within a project. I’m going to have a lot of fun crafting those set lists nightly, totally unique to the city and the night, just make it fun being back together with the band and the people.”

He pauses for a moment, weighing the thrill of music on his terms for his people. “I know it probably maddens some people, but it lends to a really unique concert experience for that night. That date. That city.

“That’s the thing I’ve been holding on to for a year now. That’s the thing that’s sustained me through some pretty dark times. I’m going to make sure I appreciate that moment, that I commit myself to that moment because it’s going to be one hell of a moment.”

Eric Church is serious about getting back on the road. He’s taken on the novel coronavirus as well. The 44-year-old “more Libertarian than anything,” who doesn’t get flu shots, rolled up his sleeve and got vaccinated on Billboard’s cover.

Coming from a part of North Carolina where that might be considered treason, he’s not unaware of how his actions could read. But the don’t-tread-on-me country superstar, who writes don’t F with me songs on par with Johnny Paycheck, doesn’t care. He wants to play — and he wants to keep safe while doing it.

“I don’t get the ‘sold out’ argument. I’m trying to play shows again, and what I would say to anybody is, ‘I’m not just doing this stuff off the cuff. This has been months and months of trying to figure out how and when we can get back to doing this again.’ I have heard all the experts; we have talked to the municipalities, mayors, governors, local authorities, epidemiologists, scientists. (Vaccinating) is the only way I see for the quickest return to normal. I view this vaccine as a godsend that we got it when we did, because early on I was hearing spring 2023, so think about where we are.”

“It was my idea,” he says of the cover shot. “I was the one who said, ‘I think it’s imperative that we go and do this, and show people where I stand, because I felt like there are a lot of fans out there … I think we’re a brand you can trust. We’ve always treated our fans the right way, so I felt people should see that I did it, and I’m OK.

“There are people who don’t feel that way, who don’t think it’s fair when you’re talking about health to be told they have to do something. I understand that’s liberty; I really do. But what I would say is the more people we can get to take the vaccine who are not those people, the faster we can all go back to work.”

Church, who won his first Entertainer of the Year award from the Country Music Association in November, has thought a lot about this. He doesn’t want to tell anyone what they have to do, but he also wants people to come together to get the world back to something closer to life pre-COVID. If you’re not helping do that, you might be crowding the songwriter’s own liberties.

“I know there’s a percentage who won’t do it, and I respect that. I honestly do,” he continues. “But it’s really on them then, if they go to a show. There’s a risk they’re taking — and I don’t believe that it’s fair for the municipality or the sporting event or me that I can’t go on tour the way I want to, the way the fans want us to, because there’s a percentage that doesn’t want to get the shot.

“So, I hope people understand that this is something you need to do. This is a public health measure … Polio, you know? We eradicated polio, (because) there wasn’t a choice. I remember the little TB thing they did. You had to have certain vaccinations to get into kindergarten. If you didn’t have those, you couldn’t go to public school.

“I think we’ll get to a place where it’s moot within a year, hopefully. But it’s going to be interesting, too. You’re putting people in a place they haven’t been in a year and a half, and as weird as the mask was for me to start, I think it’s going to be a little weird coming out the other way.”

Beyond trolls on social media, there’s been little pushback. If anything, Church has seen his fans start posting up. Suddenly, there are “Got my second shot” and “Johnson & Johnson” comments in his social feeds. He knows he’s not going to save the world; he hopes to bring it to a place where people can gather together.

“The more you’re separated, the more you’re isolated, the more susceptible you are to crazy shit. I think the sooner we can be human again, and I mean just be human, I think the better off we’re going to be as humanity, as people who are just living life.”

For now, Church thinks about Lexington. There are several festival dates this summer that will put Church in front of people. But come September, he’s back doing what he lives for.

And that first song? He’s been thinking about it for months. “I’ve got a great opening song, one of the new ones. ‘Hearts on Fire.’ I think it speaks to the moment, because that’s what my heart’s going to be at that point. You know it’s going to be full and burning; you’re going to have all the emotion you can have, and the love, and all that stuff is going to be happening in that 3.5- to 4-minute segment.”

The spark in his voice almost pops. It’s been a long time for a creature of the road to be home. Grateful for the time with his wife and three children; he’s not scoffing about that. But Eric Church exists to play exhaustive shows, wringing himself out night after night to packed arenas of people who know all the words to the deepest tracks. It’s an exercise in faith and delivery, fervor and release. When music drives your truth, your life, your sense of self, it is in coming together that you feel most alive. Eric Church was born to live.  

This story originally appeared in Pollstar.