(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)
Almost nine years after the release of his major label debut album, Sinners Like Me, Eric Church has managed to evolve into the artist he’s strived to be from the outset of his career.
He underscored that ambition Saturday night (Jan. 31) during an arena appearance in Salt Lake City by delivering an unplanned acoustic set after his band members and road crew were stricken by the stomach flu.
Unable to deliver the full production of his Outsiders World Tour, Church took the stage alone with his acoustic guitar for a much quieter show his fans in Utah will probably never forget. Before beginning his set, Church explained the situation and promised to return on May 25 for the full-production show he’d planned to present. Tickets to this past weekend’s show will be honored in May.
Three of his band members who were well enough for a short stint onstage joined him and opening act Lzzy Hale for a very appropriate song – “That’s Damn Rock and Roll” – but Church primarily performed alone, working six microphones positioned to play to everyone in the stands at the 360-degree stage setup.
Church deserves credit for not disappointing his fans, but his actions point to a larger question: How many touring acts these days would have attempted – much less pulled off – such a feat?
Practice really can mean perfect, and it all goes back to paying your dues. In Church’s case, it’s about the days before he was famous while playing lengthy sets in bars and clubs where nobody gave a damn whether he was in the room or not.
Compared to rock and pop acts, country performers tend to have a stronger background as club performers, but we’re also living in the American Idol era where nobodies get national attention overnight. Sure, once the Idol season is over, the contestants do a big tour together, but singing a few songs each night on an arena stage doesn’t provide the education and seasoning of lugging your own amps, drums and PA system into a seedy bar and playing to 20 people before hauling the equipment back to the van and doing the exact same thing the next night. And Church obviously knows what that’s like.
Having said all of this, I have to admit that I haven’t quite yet bought into the mainstream media’s assertion that Church is one of the undisputed modern-day saviors of country music. He’s written some great songs and taken some major chances with the direction of his more recent albums. Above all, he’s rewritten a page from the Taylor Swift playbook and, in his own way, cultivated a massive, devoted fan base that’s likely to follow him for the rest of his career.
Swift, of course, took Church’s place after he was fired from Rascal Flatts’ 2006 tour. Not that it was any of my business, I’ll admit being a little irritated by the way Church portrayed the whole episode at the time.
I recall him opening a show for Bob Seger a few years ago at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena and bragging about being kicked off the Flatts tour, saying he guessed he was just too wild for them.
Years later, the members of Rascal Flatts told their side of the story – and it was exactly as I’d suspected. Saying they had no grudge against Church, they kicked him off their tour simply because his sets as the opening act were repeatedly running longer than scheduled.
Now, playing too long may sound like a good thing, but the truth is that when an opening act goes past their allotted time, it creates major problems for the headliner and concert promoters. Especially in large cities where union rules are strictly enforced, concerts have a drop-dead time to end. And if they don’t end at that time, it can cost artist managers and promoters thousands and thousands of dollars in overtime fees.
From an industry standpoint, Church behaving that way as an opening act was demonstrating a lack of respect for the very people who invited him on the tour in the first place. He seemed more like an amateur than an uncontrollable free spirit.
In discussing the incident in an interview with Playboy magazine, Church said, “We ended up banished to the wilderness,” he said. “Nobody would touch us. It’s like we were nuclear. We’re further into rock ‘n’ roll than anyone else, and that’s why a lot of traditionalists have a major problem with me.”
Thankfully, time changes all of us. We all mature and grow, and Church is now the headliner who’s calling all the shots.
He clearly cares about his fans. Despite anything he might have said previously, that acoustic set under dire circumstances in Salt Lake City may be the most rock ‘n’ roll thing he’s ever done.