Eric Church: From “Outsider” to Entertainer of the Year

photo: John Russell

Did I ever tell you about the time the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year Eric Church wrote a song about me? That’s right. I am the “Country Music Jesus.” And really, it’s about time the world woke up to that fact, and showed me the type of respect and courtesy such a title commands.

As soon as Eric Church won the Country Music Association’s 2020 Entertainer of the Year Award Wednesday night (11-11), the first thing I thought of is how I could make this moment all about myself. The muse of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” never had it so good.

In all seriousness, Eric Church did write a song inspired by yours truly, or at least, inspired by something written here on Saving Country Music. “Country Music Jesus” appeared on Church’s 2011 album Chief, which was a heavily decorated album itself. It went onto win both the CMA and ACM Album of the Year, and was nominated for the Grammy’s Best Country Album.

But I was not impressed, with Chief, or really anything Eric Church was laying down. To this young, scrappy, idealistic country music blogger with a penchant for vulgarity and a natural bias for anything independent and against most anything popular, Eric Church the embodiment of what was wrong with the mainstream.

No, Eric Church wasn’t Taylor Swift. He was worse. Everybody knew what Taylor Swift was—a certified pop star in country. But Eric Church was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, parading himself around like an “Outlaw” when he was just as much a product of the mainstream ecosystem as anyone. It was all marketing, like his song “Lotta Boot Left To Fill” that had the audacity to name drop Waylon Jennings.

“This is one of these pop songs that trashes pop songs, talking out of both sides of the mouth,” I wrote in an especially detrius-laden screed now over ten years ago. “This song is such an abomination I am surprised the sheer mention of it doesn’t cause a rip in the country music space/time continuum.”

Inside Nashville circles, Eric Church’s prickly nature wasn’t making him many friends either. He once got kicked off a Rascal Flatts tour as an opener for playing too loud, and too long. In fact this was one of the primary developments that helped along Taylor Swift’s ascent when she was tapped to replace him on the tour.

At some point, Eric Church caught wind of my rantings against him as he slowly rose in stature to one of Saving Country Music’s top persona non gratas. After reading a number of posts here criticizing today country and asking who might be the next country music savior, Eric Church was inspired to write the aforementioned “Country Music Jesus” with Jeremy Spillman. If you don’t believe me, there’s video evidence of it that was published and passed along by an individual who worked on the Eric Church crew at the time.

Addressing and performing a few songs for a crowd of fan club members before a show, Eric Church said, “I holed up in a cabin for about 5 weeks, without a cell phone, TV, anything fun. There’s this writer, at the time that kinda had written a critique of the new country Outlaw movement. Said something about ‘I wish all these new guys would do it like the old guys did it, and make the same music, the same way, over and over.’ (groans from the crowd). He said I guess we’re still waiting on a country music Jesus to save country music’s soul. I thought, ‘Well that’s great!’ (crowd laughs). I used that idea.”

Of course, this was all succulent validation for a mouthy country music blogger. Finally, my inane ramblings were reaching the upper echelons of the mainstream. But it wasn’t taken as flattery. If anything, I doubled down on my harsh criticism of Mr. Chief and his unchecked arrogance, once illustrated in a montage of quotes from him at the time I published. And Eric Church kept up that arrogance, and the questionable marketing.

Church’s 2014 album The Outsiders was like the perfect gaslighting of both the independent realm, and the mainstream, even if it included some quality songs stuffed between the heavy metal riffs. Here was a guy that had won CMA and ACM awards, was selling millions of records and receiving widespread radio play, trying to act like he was an “Outsider” to anything. It was such brash marketing, clearly trying to exploit the rising enthusiasm in independent country we were seeing for artists like Sturgill Simpson, while Church brayed on and on about how it was the best record ever.

But over the next few years, we’d see something completely unexpected from Eric Church, and frankly, unprecedented from many mainstream country stars. Whether it was a natural maturation, becoming a father, or actually listening to many of his critics who insisted Church’s marketing was getting in the way of his music, Eric Church changed, and in a meaningful way.

His 2015 album Mr. Misunderstood was released as a surprise record, and on the same day as the 2015 CMA Awards. Tens of thousands of members of his fan club received copies completely free in the mail. Just as much of a surprise, the album was much more understated and songwriter-based than his previous material, devoid of all the marketing of The Outsiders, and the heavy metal growl in the music.

Eric Church collaborated with Rhiannon Giddens on an anti-racism song called “Kill A Word,” and also featured Susan Tedeschi and Joanna Cotten on the record. He name dropped Jeff Tweedy and Ray Wylie Hubbard in the title track. Mr. Misunderstood went on to win the 2016 CMA Album of the Year. On his next album—2018’s Desperate Man—Eric Church wrote the title track with Ray Wylie Hubbard.

All of a sudden, a guy known for being the most arrogant and prickly person in mainstream country music was becoming the unexpected champion of cool artists, and one of the cooler artists in the mainstream himself. He championed many country music women at a time they were facing much adversity. If it wasn’t for Church, Ashley McBryde would have never received her opportunity. Ray Wylie Hubbard would have likely never signed to Big Machine Records, and finally received his debut on Austin City Limits. The guy that was once ground zero for everything wrong in mainstream country was now one of the best things going in it.

And over this time, the care Eric Church showed to his fans began to pay off in massive arena shows selling out minutes after dates were posted. He became one of the undisputed biggest entertainers in all of country music, with gate purses rivaling anyone. To start off the single release cycle for his upcoming album, Eric Church released the pointed “Stick That In Your Country Song,” decrying the shallowness of many of today’s country songs.

What we’ve seen from Eric Church over the last five years is nothing short of remarkable. Regularly, as the career tracks of mainstream artists elongate and radio play gets more difficult to secure, they start stretching toward trends, and reach out of their comfort zone. But Eric Church has done what you would want most every artist to do, which is mature with their music, use their platform to help others, and not make a big, self-absorbed deal about it when they do good deeds. Eric Church has built such a grassroots foundation rarely seen in the mainstream, he doesn’t need radio play. It’s a bonus to him. So he can do what he wants.

“This year, at least for me, has been about loss,” Eric Church said while accepting his Entertainer of the Year trophy Wednesday night. “Loss of life, loss of playing shows, loss of freedom, loss of kids being in school… And you know what the win is? The win is we all were here tonight, together as Country music—in person, live and I believe this, I really believe this: It’s gonna be music that brings us out of this. That is the one thing that’s gonna save the world. Politicians are about division; music is about unity.”

Eric Church is not the greatest entertainer in country music. There are many independent names you could put ahead of him. And Eric Church still releases some pretty dry songs along with the better album cuts, while it’s often a stretch to characterize his musioc as “country.” But it’s hard to argue against him being one of the greatest entertainers in the mainstream, and he’s certainly a worthy recipient of the CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy, if it isn’t a couple of years past due.

But more than the tour numbers or records sold that you could use to justify the Entertainer of the Year win, the reason Eric Church deserves the most important trophy in all of country music is because over time he’s done what we all strive to do—whether it’s a country music performer or a two-bit mouthy blogger trying to make a name for himself. It’s to become better people, overcome our shortcomings and self-centered notions, and inspire others to do the same.

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