Eric Church


By Adam Lucas

ORANGE BEACH, AL—Looking back, we should have known.

There were so many signs. Nearly two hours before Eric Church ever came on stage in the final installment of the three-day Orange Beach stop on the Outsiders Revival Tour, Jackson Dean turned in a roaring version of his fantastic song, “Fearless.” 

Then Lainey Wilson followed, in a very Church-like move, by switching up her set list and adding several new wrinkles, including a cover of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” that was the perfect Saturday sing-along.

That’s when we should have guessed. The tone was being set. No offense to Friday night, because Friday night was great—but Saturday night was out to destroy it. “We are,” the man himself said at one point in the show, “taking no prisoners tonight.”

When Church’s set list came out, right there, in the number one spot, for the first time all tour, was “Country Music Jesus.” Understand that this is not normal. Artists don’t play over 20 shows of a tour, then suddenly decide that they’re going to change the opening song. Entire meetings are held about opening songs. Church doesn’t have meetings. He has a feel.

Then, for good measure, he added in three songs that hadn’t been performed at all on this tour. All total, he played 29 different songs over the Triple-Down stop in Orange Beach. And that was before he made it 30 with a last-second change at the end (more on that in a minute).

You want to know what kind of performance it was on Saturday night? On Friday, “Talladega” was part of the encore. On Saturday, it was in the tenth slot on the set list—meaning Church had the confidence to play one of the songs everyone in the building came to hear…and the show wasn’t even half over yet. 

It wasn’t one moment from Saturday night’s concert that made it one of the signature nights of this tour. It was all the moments. It was the way Church took his voice a little lower than normal and a little higher than normal on “Bad Mother Trucker.” It was the way he didn’t just change a couple words in “Round Here Buzz” to fit the locale, as he often does, but changed an entire couplet to salute the Orange Beach crowd (“I kind of thought night three in Orange Beach would be better than expected/You guys have been better than the best…and there is more to come”). 

The excellence carried over to everyone involved. It didn’t matter that it was oppressively muggy, perhaps the hottest show of this tour—and yes, that includes the Texas scorchers. There was no time to worry about the fact that the air wasn’t moving at all in Alabama. Spend time worrying about the heat, you were going to get left behind. 

And so Roy Agee’s trombone solo in “Cold One” was electric. During that song, keys player Billy Justineau was so in the moment that he danced with the backup singer trio. And why not? It was that kind of night.

It was such an all-encompassing performance that even the moments that might have gone unnoticed were noticeably terrific. Saturday night was the first time “Stick That In Your Country Song” has been in the set list on this tour and the first time he’s played it live since August of 2022.

But even for that one, on the final drum beats, lighting director Gavin Lake had the perfect flourish, darkening the entire stage except for bright white lights on drummer Craig Wright for only those beats. Lake just grinned. “I love those little nuances,” he said.

Those nuances are part of what takes a good show to great—and beyond. Through them all, an 11-year-old named Connor was holding a white sign with simple black letters he’d handwritten. It read, “Hippie Radio.” And Connor, a Houston native, held it up from “Country Music Jesus” through “Springsteen.”

How persistent was Connor, whose dad estimated that Saturday night’s show put his son into the “low 20s” in quantity of times he’s seen Church? He hadn’t just held the sign on Saturday. He’d held it the previous two nights in Orange Beach, plus last Saturday’s show in Chicago. That’s four straight shows. 

And he finally caught Church’s eye. “We don’t usually do this,” Church said from the stage, “but there’s a young man who’s been holding a sign all night. How old are you?”

Connor answered that he is 11 years old. “My son is 11,” Church replied. “You should be in bed.”

But he wasn’t, which was fortunate, because he was about to have a moment he’ll still be talking about a decade from now. “This one,” Church said as he broke into the requested song, “is for you.”

Connor was a celebrity walking out of the Wharf pit. New friends pounded him on the back, including those regular pit inhabitants who had made sure to maneuver him to the very front. It took him a couple minutes to accept all the congratulations, before he could work his way back to his father, at which point the duo shared a massive hug. 

Why that particular song?

“It’s a revival song,” Connor explained. “And this is the Outsiders Revival.” 

It is indeed. And we should have known, right from the beginning. We should have just listened to Lainey Wilson. An hour before the night ever started, an hour before Dean ever went on the stage, she was talking about her admiration for Church and the influence he’s had from her on afar.

“It would be embarrassing if he knew how many times I try to channel Eric Church when I sit down to write,” she said. “He doesn’t do what works. He does what works for him.”

It was pointed out to her that Church has been very intentional about selecting the openers for this tour, about picking artists he likes or that he believes have potential. Wilson, of course, has had plenty of positive feedback in the last 18 months. 

On March 24, 2022, she played a show in front of 87 people in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Now sellout crowds of tens of thousands sing her songs back to her. It’s a rocket ship. It’s been an overnight sensation that just so happened to take 12 years.

But all the awards, all the streams, all the exploding fan base, none of them have exactly the same impact as knowing Eric Church wants to share the stage with her. And, not surprisingly, it was Wilson who summed it up perfectly—both what he does for her and what he did for everyone in the Wharf Amphitheater on Saturday night. She felt it and Connor felt it and the pit felt it and so did the very top row of section 304. It’s just that we aren’t Lainey Wilson, so let her say it the exactly right way:

“He just gives me that little spark,” she said. “And it makes me believe I can really whoop some ass.”