August 31, 2023
Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum Artist-In-Residence Shows
By Adam Lucas
NASHVILLE—When Eric Church’s new Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit debuted earlier this summer, he gave an interview to several local media members about the display.
Word had just gotten out that Church was the Hall of Fame’s next Artist-in-Residence, the 18th in a storied line that includes Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill, Kenny Rogers, Miranda Lambert and Alan Jackson.
Church was predictably excited about the honor. “We’re going to do something,” he said that night to the assembled reporters, “that nobody has ever seen before.”
Then the media walked away. And Church turned to his longtime manager, John Peets, who has been with him for nearly 20 years. “OK,” Church said, “what are we going to do?”
It was the perfect summation of his career. The singer wasn’t sure exactly what he would do for his two Artist-in-Residence shows. But he knew it would be something unique and something completely unexpected, and he knew that he had approximately a month to figure it out. In Chief time, that’s an eternity.
The product of that month’s labor happened Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the CMA Theater. These were not normal shows. Twenty minutes before showtime each night, Vince Gill rolled in, just himself and a guitar. In a town where everyone has people, one of the biggest legends came alone. It wasn’t unusual to walk down the hall and hear the sounds of a guitar tuning filtering out of a dress room. That was Vince Gill, tuning his guitar in the actual Vince Gill Room of the CMA Theater. His name is permanently on the door of the room, and he was here. That’s how big this was.
There were no unintentional details in these two shows. The four guitars that sat behind Church on the stage looked like props. They weren’t. For example, the Epiphone on the far left was the guitar he played when he began his career. Band member Jeff Hyde played it for approximately ten years, and it stayed in the Church road family when Hyde gifted it to stage manager Sambo Coats.
Sambo once tried to give it back. “I know what this is,” he told Church. “Don’t you want it back?”
Church gave him a grin. “It’s yours,” he said. Sambo, of course, has held on to the prize piece of memorabilia. And that’s why it was out there on the stage, standing guard while Church walked through his entire career.
Just over 750 people packed the tiny venue each evening. What they saw—in perhaps a very early iteration of what they might see at Chief’s when it opens—was a perfect 90-minute encapsulation, mixing music, audio and video, of exactly what has made Eric Church who he is and exactly why he was sitting on that Hall of Fame stage. Someone who had never seen Eric Church could watch this type of show and get the full picture of his career. But someone who has been with Eric Church since the beginning would get to relive the entire story—the good and the bad.
And Church went with them on that journey. There was real emotion in the shows, both in the crowd and on the stage. The reason this whole thing has worked is that at the same time every member of the Church Choir has lived it from the outside, the artist himself has lived it from the inside. He’s never been shy about letting them in, for the good and the bad, and he’s never been more honest than he was in these two performances.
In that hour and a half, there was laughter—Peets incorporated AI voices reading actual quotes from music critics (the positive and, especially, the negative) about Church and voice mails he had received from other industry figures. Knowing what we know now, we had to chuckle when an early critic branded Church “a country music sellout.” Cue “Country Music Jesus.”
Sometimes the best commentary was no commentary at all. With the stage darkened, Peets played a piece of an interview from Rascal Flatts front man Gary LeVox discussing booting Church from the Flatts tour in 2006. When the clip finished, a spotlight illuminated Church, who said nothing…other than a very wide smile.
There were all the best songs, from the ones that you’ve known by heart for decades to the brand new. The show’s opener, “On the Road,” didn’t even exist when Church gave that interview promising something no one had seen before. He hadn’t written it yet, but here it was, fitting perfectly with longtime favorites like “Give Me Back My Hometown” and “Springsteen” and “Talladega” and, well, the music of our life over the past two decades. What he showed on Tuesday, and what can sometimes be forgotten, is that it was the music of his life, too.
There were tears—so many tears. Putting it in this type of chronological context, it really hits home how dark some periods have been. Remember, this isn’t just a story. This is someone’s life, someone who was trying to be a husband and a dad and a son and a brother all while the world seemed intent on crumbling in as many ways as possible. A little past midway through, there was a four-song sequence that started with “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young,” moved into “Some Of It,” then kicked into “Monsters,” and then…
And then, probably, was arguably the highlight of each night in a show packed with highlights. After an introduction recapping the Route 91 Harvest music festival shooting, Church performed “Why Not Me” for the second and third times ever (the other was when he debuted it on an epic night at the Opry in October of 2017). Watching that performance, it immediately became clear that “Why Not Me” could never be an every-night type of song. There are too many raw memories in it, even almost six years later.
Church left the stage after the song, with audible sniffles echoing through the crowd on both nights. It went dark, allowing the voiceover to memorialize the death of Brandon Church, Eric’s brother, at the age of 36. And when the lights came up, there was Vince Gill, who sang “Go Rest High On That Mountain” while Church stood backstage, wiping away tears. Vince Gill singing the phone book is special. Vince Gill singing that song on that stage on that night, well, these Nashville summertime allergies are brutal.
Sitting there at that moment, it was fair to wonder exactly how Church might bring the audience back from such a heart-wrenching sequence of music and stories. But here’s the thing about the Eric Church catalog, and it’s also why people came from all over the country for these performances: he’s got something for everything. And so the rebound song from “Go Rest High” was “Never Break Heart.”
“Hurt’s gonna keep on tryin’ and pain’s gonna keep on cryin’
“But way down deep, there’s a beat gonna keep on fightin’
The chorus was perfect.
“It’s okay to cry
“But don’t never break heart.”
The night finished with “Holdin’ My Own.” Before he played it, Church addressed the people in the theater.
“This,” he said, “was tough. But this is who we are. Everything you saw tonight is who we are.”
You could hear in his voice what an emotional evening it had been. And when he finished what he has frequently said this summer is his favorite song he’s ever done, you could hear in the crowd’s response exactly how much they appreciated what had gone into the two-night Hall of Fame performances. Peets had distilled almost 20 years into 90 minutes in a way that simultaneously made you appreciate what a long journey it had been but also felt much too brief. There had been times the people in the room couldn’t take any more…and they also didn’t want it to stop.
Long after Church had left the stage, they were still standing and chanting. It was, really, the only way nights like this could have ended, with their words echoing up and down the hallways of a building that holds only the very best and most legendary of Nashville.
“Chief! Chief! Chief!”
Photos: Jason Kempin / Getty Images