Eric Church


By Adam Lucas

DALLAS—You know it’s hot when it starts impacting some very important Eric Church tour traditions.

Friday was the 50th birthday of beloved security ace Pete Martinez. He’d already had a few birthday gifts, including the surprise arrival of his wife and nine-month-old son, plus his brother flying in from Sacramento. 

But as show time approached at the Dos Equis Pavilion and openers Ray Wylie Hubbard and Midland prepared to take the stage, one very important tradition remained. Most of the crew gathered in the catering room to surprise Martinez with a birthday serenade—only on the Outsiders Revival Tour does a birthday song come complete with powerhouse three-woman background vocal support from Whitney Coleman, Stephcynie Curry and April Rucker—despite the knowledge that due to the very nature of his job, surprising him with anything is virtually impossible.

He was presented with two birthday cakes. There were party hats. But something was missing.

“I’m looking,” Pete said, “for MJ.”

That would be MJ Sagraves, Church’s longtime guitar tech. He had a very important role to fulfill, because Church tour tradition demands that Sagraves slam a bottle of Jack Daniels into the birthday cake of anyone who celebrates a birthday while on tour. No one is quite certain how the ritual began, but they know one thing for certain: “It’s tradition,” said Bob Schneeberger, who handles tour catering.

Within moments, MJ was there, and completed his JD-infused cake-slamming celebration. 

Where had he been? Getting an IV. 

With the temperature moving past 100 degrees, IV’s had been made available for the entire crew as a way of staying hydrated. The sellout crowd—the venue implemented rarely-used lawn seating procedures designed to pack the seats a little closer that are only used when a huge crowd is expected—knew only that the temperature was 99 at show time. What they didn’t have to think about was that most of the crew had been working, outdoors, in even hotter temperatures all day.

By show time, there were 12 different fans in and around the stage. Some were small and some were the size that impacted weather patterns in Plano. “We’re just trying to do,” stage manager Sambo Coats said, “whatever it takes to help the man.” 

That was in addition to three large air conditioning units blowing a gale force of wind onto Church and the stage right and stage left areas. The result? While the thermometer still ran high, the on-stage area was noticeably cooler (not cool, mind you, but cooler) than the previous night in Arkansas.

Even on a day when all the uncertain variables were present—remember, this is the first time ever Church has toured outdoor amphitheaters, and temperature isn’t a normal concern in arenas—the heat couldn’t stop the birthday traditions. 

And that’s part of why the crew works so well together, and why they’re able to handle occasional unexpected situations so well. Take Friday, for example. The state flag of Texas was mistakenly hung upside down, which is something every Texan was born being able to notice on sight. No problem. Coats coordinated a mid-show rehanging of the flag that dovetailed nicely with Hubbard joining Church on stage to sing, “Screw You, We’re From Texas.”

The song turned into one of the highlights of the evening. The rest of the night felt like it could have been just as at home in one of those bars he played when no one knew his name. As the flag was correctly raised, Church said, “I feel like we need a dramatic effect.” So he instantaneously broke into, “Luckenbach, Texas” a 1977 Waylon Jennings song that also featured Willie Nelson. Not surprisingly, they were doing collabs before collabs were cool.

“Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas

“With Waylon and Willie and the boys

“This successful life we’re livin’

“Got us feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys.”

The rest of the night just…worked. During “Smoke a Little Smoke,” every member of the three-man horns section was in a power squat, feeling the energy coming from Church and the three-woman backing vocals crew. The end of that song is a moment, and Church fist-bumped all three of Coleman, Curry and Rucker—the only people who had performed both on stage and at a birthday party within the span of hours—as they returned to their spot stage right.

The back-to-back combination of Smoke and “Give Me Back My Hometown” is turning into one of the signature sequences of every night of the tour. On Smoke, it’s readily apparent that every single person on the stage is having an incredible amount of fun. And during Hometown, that energy transfers to the crowd, and they belt out every word.

“Thinkin’ ‘bout you sittin’ there sayin’, ‘I HATE THIS, I HATE IT

“If you couldn’t stand livin’ here why’d you TAKE IT, TAKE IT.”

It was, as Church said, “an incredible Friday night in Dallas, Texas.”

He finished with a three-song encore of “The Outsiders,” “Springsteen,” and “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young,” the last one not listed anywhere on the setlist and the first time he’d played the song live in over a year.

People two-stepped in the crowd during the encore—there is much more dancing in Texas than any other tour stops so far—and took videos with their phones and sang along. Even with the heat, it turned into the longest show of the Outsiders Revival so far. And before the last piece of the set was packed into trucks for the overnight drive to Austin, tour manager Todd Bunch—who has been with Church since he was driving from gig to gig in a rental van—sent an email to the entire crew.

“Tomorrow’s heat will be worse,” he wrote. “So stay hydrated and be careful.”