Eric Church Roundly Criticized for his 2024 Stagecoach Set

First, a quick disclaimer. Saving Country Music is not in Indio, California at the Stagecoach Festival. The livestream via Amazon Prime is being monitored, but mostly to see independent artists. Eric Church’s set at Stagecoach was not witnessed personally.

But after having read through many accounts from dedicated Eric Church fans, as well as professional reviews from credentialed journalists in attendance, it is unquestionable that Eric Church’s headlining set at Stagecoach Friday night (4-26) was an absolute catastrophe, with “career ending” and other strong conclusions being drawn from it.

Instead of coming out with his regular band and performing some of his biggest hits such as “Drink In My Hand,” “Springsteen,” and “Talladega,” Eric Church instead decided to cap off Night One of Stagecoach 2024 with an acoustic Gospel set. According to critic Brian Blueskye writing for the Palm Springs Desert Sun, “The unplugged jam session sent festivalgoers for the exit of the Empire Polo Club starting about 15 minutes in, a sight that could be best described as Moses parting the Red Sea.”

Photos and videos from the festival show rows upon rows of empty seats halfway into the set, and large swaths for the standing room field free of fans. No matter how any third party observers want to assess the situation, the people in attendance spoke with their feet, with estimates that around 20% or less of the crowd was left by the end.

With a projection of stained glass windows behind him, Eric Church started the set off with a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which it seemed the crowd was into at first, just thinking Church was wanting to open with a spiritual moment. But when the set continued with songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “This Little Light Of Mine,” “When The Saints Go Marching In,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “I Saw The Light,” folks started heading for the exits.

Not even the presence of long-time backup singer and fan favorite Joanna Cotten who officially left Eric Church’s band in 2022 could resuscitate the set, neither could the choir of backup Gospel singers.

Despite some of the anecdotal accounts that the set was solely Gospel-inspired, Church also strangely decided to include an acoustic version of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice” and Tupac’s “California Love” that didn’t seem to make sense from anyone’s perspective. He also played other recognizable covers like Al Green’s “Take Me To The River,” and Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” For the final few songs, Church did play some of his more recognizable hits like “Springsteen,” but most of the crowd had left at that point.

Another criticism you’re seeing from some of the most dedicated fans of Eric Chuch’s fan club—ironically called the Church Choir—is that along with the acoustic Gospel curve ball, Church was curiously and uncharacteristically unengaged with the crowd. Instead of trying to explain himself or create some camaraderie with the audience to sell the moment, fans say he came across as strangely cold and aloof, apparently only saying “How you guys doin’?” one hour and six minutes into the set.

So what are we to make of all of this?

It’s not unprecedented for Eric Church play an acoustic set. In fact, it’s been one of the markers of his career. In 2015 when his entire band and crew contracted a stomach flu and couldn’t perform, Church came out and played a full acoustic set in Salt Lake City that many said was one for the ages. Though it wasn’t what fans expected, Church was able to create an intimacy with the arena audience that made the performance unique, and it was almost universally lauded, especially since the only other option would have been a cancellation.

After that, Church played numerous other shows just acoustic, including in 2021 during the COVID pandemic when his crew once again came down with the bug but he was spared. At the 2019 CMA Fest, Eric Church also chose to play a 30-minute, 17-song acoustic medley-like set as opposed to a full band set. Some gripes went up that time, but other fans appreciated the shake up.

But the big difference here is that Eric Church wasn’t playing his own songs until the very end. Perhaps if he used the moment to launch a new Gospel or acoustic project, that would be one thing. But this was not the case. The hip-hop covers leave the curation of the set even more quizzical.

It’s also important to understand that this was a festival headliner set, not an Eric Church show. So even though many dedicated Eric Church fans were in attendance, so were many attendees who only know Church through his hits, including patrons who paid large sums of money for the sold-out event to be entertained no matter who is playing. If anything, it could have been an opportunity for Church to sell himself and his music to the younger audience who’d assembled to hear Jelly Roll perform before.

From a musical standpoint, some will point out that perhaps this is the most “country” set Eric Church has ever performed. Others will say that folks should not be offended by a Gospel set, but in fact in this moment in time, it might be exactly what is called for or needed. Though all of these things may be true, this boils down more to a consumer issue. If you pay the exorbitant price to get to the front of the stage at Stagecoach, you want to party, not to be preached to.

And finally, there have been some asserting that perhaps some of the criticisms of Eric Church’s acoustic set was due to Black performers being on stage with him, and some sort of underlying racism in the audience. First, understand that the Stagecoach Festival happens in Indio, California, in the desert right outside of Los Angeles and near Joshua Tree National Forest. This is where Democrats go to drop peyote, not southern Alabama.

Furthermore, when Jelly Roll came out on the 2023 CMT Awards with a Black Gospel choir to sing “Need A Favor,” he was heavily praised and rather universally throughout the country community, while the 2023 CMTs were otherwise strongly criticized for going “woke,” namely for Kelsea Ballerini performing with drag queens. Again, Jelly Roll performed right before Church, and his last album Whitsitt Chapel has strong Gospel themes as well.

Others are trying to claim that Church was attempting to make a political statement due to the Palestinian protests, or somehow illustrate the Black legacy in country music through the set in the wake of Beyoncé’s new album Cowboy Carter. But in a statement after the performance, Church did not allude to any of this.

Stagecoach is the country version of Coachella, which is held on the same grounds the week before. Over the years, Coachella headline performers have also played wild card sets, hoping to create a buzz behind them, often to mixed results. In 2023, Frank Ocean’s headliner set at Coachella was roundly criticized for it’s lack of enthusiasm or direction. But this is the first we’ve heard of something like this at Stagecoach.

Will this truly be a “career ending” moment for Eric Church? This is very doubtful. If he can survive his San Antonio cancellation to watch a basketball game, he can survive this. But he certainly didn’t do himself any favors at a time when his career is teetering between falling off the mainstream map in lieu of the new generation of performers, or perhaps riding the wave of new interest in country music.

In some respects, it’s a shame that an acoustic Gospel set couldn’t be better received at a country festival. Acoustic music and Gospel standards are a building block of the genre. But it also feels unfair to mainstream country fans, and even Eric Church fans specifically, to expect them to endure what boils down to an acoustic covers set during the headliner slot of one of country music’s largest festivals all year.

In some ways, you have to respect Eric Church for trying something different, and for performing Gospel. But ultimately, the execution was clearly all wrong, at least for many of those in attendance in Indio.

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After the set, Eric Church said backstage,

This was the most difficult set I have ever attempted. I’ve always found that taking it back to where it started, back to chasing who Bob Seger loves, who Springsteen loves, who Willie Nelson loves, you chase it back to the origin. The origin of all that is still the purest form of it. And we don’t do that as much anymore. It felt good at this moment to go back, take a choir and do that.

For me, it’s always been something with records, with performances, I’ve always been the one that’s like, “let’s do something really, really strange and weird and take a chance.

Sometimes it doesn’t work, but it’s okay if you’re living on that edge, because that edge, that cutting edge, is where all the new guys are going to gravitate to anyway. So if you can always challenge yourself that way, it always cuts sharper than any other edge.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include further set list information and clarify other details.

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