September 25, 2023
The Outsiders Revival Tour - Charlotte, NC 9.24.23 (Night 2)
By Adam Lucas
CHARLOTTE—So this is what it was like to be at Coyote Joe’s.
Some of us didn’t get to experience it in person. We are the poorer for it. Coyote Joe’s, a small Charlotte venue, was one of Eric Church’s biggest supporters during the younger portion of his career. He played multiple shows there, and longtime Church Choir members (along with Luke Combs, who also saw Church there when Combs was completely anonymous in the music world) will tell you there is no Church like the Coyote Joe’s version of Church.
It is virtually impossible to bring that smaller environment into a 19,500-seat venue like PNC Music Pavilion. But Sunday night got about as close as it possibly could.
The second night of a Charlotte double-down and the fourth straight night of shows—the first full-length four straight for Church since 2014—had it all.
It had the big, sweeping numbers. Actually, it had the very best big, sweeping number. It should be noted that this is purely my opinion and you are entitled to your own, but I’m willing to argue with you about it and explain why you are wrong. “Russian Roulette” is the most underrated song in Church’s catalog.
Three months ago, when Church was at this same PNC Music Pavilion rehearsing for this tour, he ran through “Russian Roulette” on an unseasonably chilly night. When he finished, even the singer himself was impressed. “That song,” he said, “is a banger.”
He’s known that for years, ever since it appeared on the Heart & Soul triple album. He wrote it with legendary songwriter Casey Beathard, someone who knows exactly what makes a classic song.
Beathard and Monty Criswell had sent Church the “Russian Roulette” title and the general idea of the song. The next time Beathard heard it, the song had transformed into what the crowd heard on Sunday night.
“There’s no chance that if Monty and I wrote that alone, it would have been anything like what it is,” Beathard says. “That’s what I love about Eric. He will depart from what would be a normal country song and he is fearless about getting out there and doing something different. But the key is that he doesn’t do it differently just to be different. He does it because he understands the heartbeat of a song.”
It's very unusual for someone to hear it and not love it. The background singer trio of Whitney Coleman, Stephcynie Curry and April Rucker were sitting backstage six hours before Sunday night’s show. “Russian Roulette” was one of the first songs they identified when asked about entries in the Church catalog that are the most fun to sing.
But it never caught fire in the general public, due largely to despised dictator Vladimir Putin. “Roulette” was due to be a radio single just before Russia invaded Ukraine and was within days of release. Church was in Las Vegas with his wife, Katherine. They dined at the same restaurant two nights in a row, and Church had a revelation. The first night, the menu listed Russian beluga caviar. The very next night—after the invasion—it only listed beluga caviar.
“As soon as I saw that,” Church remembers, “I said, ‘Oh, shit.’”
For several weeks, anything with the word Russia in the title was taboo. That included the song “Russian Roulette,” which never made it to radio. It has made occasional appearances on the Outsiders Revival Tour, and on Sunday, Church introduced it this way:
“A lot of people hate the guy, but I hate Vladimir Putin the most. This is for you, asshole.”
That would have killed at Coyote Joe’s.
But so would—and so did—“Carolina,” which is a completely different song when played within the boundaries of the Tar Heel state. It’s a much simpler song, but it’s not any less impactful. Especially here, for those of us from North Carolina or who have adopted North Carolina. May you one day be so fortunate as to have Eric Church write a song about a place that is dear to you, words that you hear in your head when you’re driving home from several states away and a tune that you can belt at the top of your lungs with 20,000 of your closest friends.
Maybe that’s Talladega. Maybe it’s Carolina. Maybe it hasn’t been written yet. But when it is, and he stands on the stage and sings it, it feels like it’s just the two of you singing it together, reminiscing about this place that only you two appreciate quite this much.
On that stage at Coyote Joe’s is where Church began to build the type of loyal fan base that sings those songs and has followed him from coast to coast on this tour. A group of diehard Choir members tailgated for hours before the two shows in Charlotte, and on Sunday night they presented Church with a gift from the pit during his encore: a state of North Carolina flag dated and printed with the words, “Outsiders Revival Tour, Springsteen was written about this place, PNC Pavilion, Charlotte.”
Church, clearly touched, wrapped the flag around him before singing the new extra verse to “Springsteen,” which was, of course, inspired by his attendance at a show in Charlotte back when this outdoor amphitheater was known as Blockbuster Pavilion. What he said next made the difference. Lots of artists would have accepted the gift. He went one step further. “Did y’all sign this?” he asked. He wanted it to be personal, wanted every individual to be represented. That’s why he could entertain Coyote Joe’s just as skillfully as he worked a much larger room at PMC Music Pavilion.
His parents were at Sunday’s show, and saw some of the same characteristics they’ve recognized in their son for years. “I was the president of a furniture company for a long time,” says Ken Church, Eric’s father. “I could be in the showroom with him when he was 14 or 15 years old and he would meet someone. Six or seven years later, those same people go to a a concert and he’d call them by their first name. He has that kind of memory.”
That memory is combined with a keen business sense that enabled him to play Charlotte on Sunday night as the part owner of the same NBA team he cheered for as a kid, the Charlotte Hornets. It’s what allowed him to recognize even in those early Coyote Joe’s days that he wanted to sing his own songs, not cover songs. There’s power in owning your own copyright.
So the covers are rare, and when you hear one, it’s special. That was the case Sunday, when he finished—by request—with “Hallelujah.”
It’s not his song. Not originally, at least. But you would never persuade anyone in attendance that he didn’t completely own it for those four minutes. The entire band had left the stage, so it was just Church and a guitar and the crowd. And did it connect?
When he played the last notes, I looked around and multiple people were wiping tears from their eyes, from a 71-year-old woman to a grizzled Army Ranger.
We’re among friends, so it’s OK to admit this—and so was I. It had been the perfect two nights at the perfect place in the perfect timing for this tour, which was starting to hit an exhausting stretch after multiple cross-country flights the last two weekends. Charlotte became a revival in many ways, which was only fitting given the name of the tour.
And Church wrote the perfect excuse note, just the way he used to at Coyote Joe’s. “For anybody worried about it being Sunday,” he told the crowd, “tell your boss you spent all night in Church.”