Eric Church


By Adam Lucas

AUSTIN—Eric Church doesn’t know it, but he sang Debbie Reed through chemotherapy.

Just ask her.

“No doubt,” says the Denver resident. “He saved me.”

Reed was in attendance Saturday night in Austin when Church performed with openers Ray Wylie Hubbard and Midland in front of a sold-out crowd at Germania Insurance Amphitheater.

Austin was Reed’s 14th Church show, but she hadn’t planned to attend until a couple of weeks ago. She saw another fan online who was considering going, and that was all the encouragement she needed. By the next morning, she had tickets to the show, a hotel, and air transportation from Denver.

This is a normal Church travel experience for Reed. It’s not unusual for her to book a rental home for a Church show with extra bedrooms, then fill them up as the concert approaches with new friends she meets online. “I’ve never worried about filling them up,” she says. “I know I will always meet cool people who want to go watch an Eric Church show. And every time, I have.”

On one occasion, though, she did more extensive advance planning. In March of 2021, shortly after she had moved to Columbus, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Two weeks later, Church announced the Gather Again tour.

Reed looked at the dates:

Night 1: Lexington, Kentucky, on Sept. 17.

Night 2: Columbus, on Sept. 18.

“I decided right then,” she says. “I’m going to those shows. And that is how I’m going to get through this.”

She had surgery in April to remove half her colon, and then she started chemotherapy. Her only concession to the disease was that she didn’t buy pit tickets, because she wasn’t sure she’d feel like standing for the entire show. “Otherwise,” she said, “nothing was stopping me.”

Every chemo session included a Church playlist. Reed bought herself a new vinyl record player, which was integral to her treatment. That’s because it facilitated her primary goal: by Friday of each treatment week, she wanted to be able to put one record from the Heart & Soul triple album on the record player and feel like dancing around the kitchen.

Each dance session made her concert goal feel a little more realistic. “That’s what kept me going,” she says, “the entire summer.”

She did it, of course. She made the three-hour drive to Lexington for the start of the tour, then went back to Columbus the next night. And she’s kept regularly going to shows, with distance only a minor concern even after she moved back to Denver.

Which is how she came to be sitting six rows back in the center section on Saturday night in Austin, singing along to every word. She made a list of ten songs she was hoping to hear, almost all of which were deep cuts (she’s a veteran of this process and already saw two shows on the Outsiders Revival Tour, so she already knew she was going to hear certain songs). Four of them—“Knives of New Orleans,” “Round Here Buzz,” “Keep On” and “Never Break Heart”—were on the set list.

Church also delivered a treat for the second straight night by inviting Hubbard to join him for “Screw You, We’re From Texas.” Or more accurately, it was Church joining Hubbard, who knows the perfect way to greet a Texas crowd. “Hey,” he begins, “is there anyone here from Texas?”

Judging by the reaction, basically everyone. Two who weren’t, though, were Bryce and Morgan Gertesien, from Lincoln, Nebraska. They were at their 12th Church show, and for one of the first times, they weren’t in the pit. But they were still in Church’s line of sight, just a few rows behind the pit, stage left. That gave Morgan the perfect opportunity to hold up a sign that said, simply, “Old Friends.”

Twice before, Church has seen her signs and played her request—once it was “Livin’ Part of Life,” the other it was “Lone Wolf.” “We try to go for the deeper cuts,” Morgan said.

And so, after he finished “Springsteen,” Church pointed at Morgan holding her sign. “I’m making sure I know how to play that,” he said as he found the right opening notes on his guitar. Then, for just the second time on the tour, he played “Old Friends, Old Whiskey, Old Songs.”

Morgan and Bryce had tears in their eyes as they talked about the moment after the show (in a twist, Church added a song at the end of the setlist and played “Love Your Love the Most” after a fan in the evening’s meet and greet session told him a story about how meaningful it was to her).

Morgan and Bryce weren’t surprised. “That’s what he does,” she said. “He makes that connection. He doesn’t have to do things like this, but he does. That’s why we go. This is like our church.”

“The concerts we’ve experienced with our friends and the time we’ve had together at his shows,” Bryce said. “That means everything to us.”

Before they departed, they exchanged phone numbers with a fan across the aisle. He’d taken pictures of the entire interaction that led to the song being performed, and wanted to make sure he could share it with them.

Which is exactly what keeps all of them coming back. People who had previously never met, bonded by the experience of two hours in the middle of Texas. Debbie Reed has plans to be at more shows on this tour, and who is she kidding, she’ll probably add even more. Because what connects her to these nights is what powered her through chemotherapy, and what prompted the Gertesiens to travel 12 hours from home and hold up a homemade sign.

“When you go to Church,” Reed says, “you are never alone.”