Holly Gleason has written for ROLLING STONE, THE LA TIMES, NY TIMES, MUSICIAN, HITS and NO DEPRESSION. She is the author of WOMAN WALK THE LINE: How The Women of Country Music Changed Our Lives, the 2017 Belmont Book Award winner. The 2019 CMA Media Achievement winner, she is at work on PRINE ON PRINE: Encounters and Interviews for Chicago Review Press.
Eric Church ain’t playing. The wild-eyed songwriter/rocker from Granite Falls, North Carolina has never done things the easy way, or any way really, other than full-tilt. Whether writing songs about outsiders and busted knuckle blue collar types, playing rock clubs instead of honky tonks, or doing three- and four-hour shows with an intermission, Church plays hard – and he plays real.
With Heart and Soul and the Church Choir only & EP released on two successive weeks AND an arena concert tour put on sale with America still on lockdown, the aviator-wearing, high-intensity performer was ready to kick a hole in our isolation. Captured on the cover of Billboard getting vaccinated to inspire those who might be vaxluctant to get their shot(s), the fiercely independent artist’s Gather Again Tour is meant to be a rallying point for anyone feeling beaten down by the last 18 months.
“The longer we go without shows and getting together with people we share a common interest with,” explains the 2020 Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, “whether it’s sports or gambling or music, those things that bind us to each other, losing those things is just as dangerous as COVID. It’s very isolationist and tribalist, and that, in my opinion, is every bit as dangerous.”
Photo credit Joe Pugliese
“The sooner we can get back to putting our arms around each other is everything. You know, when I look out at 20,000 people, I have no idea if you’re a Democrat, Republican or Independent. At that moment, we’re all about that song, that experience and moment.”
“That’s the humanity of all of it. And that’s the biggest travesty in all of this.” Few artists have a fanbase as rabid as the man behind “Talladega,” “Mr. Misunderstood,” “Homeboy,” “Springsteen,” and “Smoke A Little Smoke.” But as much as his shows are almost high impact altar calls, there is also a sense of being seen and recognized in spite of living a life beyond the Kardashianity of modern living. It’s not about private jets, $3000 bottles of wine or Gucci ice tongs, but hard work recognized and love shared.
With his latest trifecta, Church sought to change up his creative game. While again working with iconoclast producer Jay Joyce (Cage the Elephant, Coheed and Cambria), the pair dispatched to a restaurant in the Carolina mountains; out of season, the pair set up shop. For Church, it was a departure from his traditional creative process of writing a song each day – and capturing it live that night.
“I didn’t edit what I showed,” marvels the man who won for CMA Album of the Year in 2012 for Chief and 2016 for Mr. Misunderstood. “Whatever came out that day, we put that on. This was 28 days, period. Normally, I write a bazillion songs, then we have a small group – and I’ll sort of find the album. If I’m missing something I’ll start sharpening the edges.
“But here, that’s the vulnerability (of this). I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m going to get dinged because I sing about the heart all the time.’ I didn’t think about that; I thought about the next song.” As for the heart, something Church has expressed plenty of over the years, it is stunning to see him create a project that not just wears the name, but turns on the concept of so many definitions and realities of the human heart.
“I had ‘Heart of Fire,’ ‘Heart of the Night,’ ‘Never Break Heart,’” he marvels. “It didn’t occur to me ‘til the end that those themes were coming through. These were the thoughts coming out of my head, that’s what makes this record…
“Halfway through, we were committed to write a song, record a song, check it out and then move on. Every single day. Jay would stay in the studio after we were done, working and listening.
“We were 12, 13 songs in, I was like, ‘Is this any good?’ Jay gave me a big grin, says, ‘Pretty good.’
“Because it was done this way, you get to see what was on my conscience from an artist’s perspective. You also get to see a playful thing I’d never done before. This record removed a self-consciousness— that I had to be a certain way.”
Whether the hard-charging empathy of “People Break,” the enduring, “Never Break Heart,” the story-telling feminism of, “Bad Mother Trucker” or the life-affirming, “Hell of a View,” there’s a vulnerability that’s never been there before. Though recorded before the pandemic shutdown began – indeed, Church had just finished a vocal when someone asked if he’s heard about this virus – in many ways, the songs of Heart, &, and Soul express some of our own foibles, fumbles and hopes.
“People don’t let me evolve,” he says of the pressure to remain that wild-eyed kid. “That was a long time ago. We still have rebel tendencies, but we’ve grown. I don’t ever think, ‘I need to rebel against this.’ It’s just that what I do doesn’t always fit in the box.”