I’m sure you’ve seen it. And if you haven’t, you shortly will. On Wednesday October 4th, Eric Church, who was the Friday night headliner at the Route 91 Harvest Festival that 48 hours later would become the scene of the largest mass shooting in modern American history, stood within the circle of the hallowed Grand Ole Opry stage to tell his story of coming to grips with what happened, and sharing a new song in dedication to a fallen fan.
It’s hard to watch from all the emotion spilling from Eric Church, and it must have been even harder for Eric Church to have to relive those moments and tell the story, clearly shaken up, fighting back tears, and at times, losing his composure as he recalls his experience at the Harvest Festival in hindsight, now knowing what happened days later.
It was a touching moment, and a poignant moment. And it’s the moment that so far has encapsulated the emotion everyone is feeling about what happened in Las Vegas better than any other, and it’s elevated in its emotional gravity by the fact that Eric Church is not one who is known to wear his heart on his sleeve or call upon crocodile tears to lure in an audience. He’s known as being hard-nosed, and if anything, withdrawn, or at least steely, which makes his display of emotion that much more unusual, and heart-wrenching to witness.
Eric Church is also known as someone who takes care of his fans, probably more and better than any other artist of his stature and with his size of fan base, and that’s what a lot of the time in his setup to performing his new song was spent on—recalling his fans out in the Harvest Festival crowd, their reactions to songs, meeting them as he jumped off the stage to shake their hands.
This was a great moment at the Grand Ole Opry that will be remembered in the annals of Opry history, and the history that will forever surround what happened in Las Vegas which is now inexorably tied to country music. But this was also a very Eric Church moment. I don’t want to take anything away from the moment, or Eric Church. I didn’t even really want to address this because I feel like this is one of those moments where opinions can be misconstrued or taken out of context, but I’ve been requested to do so by so many. I don’t want to be callous here, but Eric Church likes to talk about Eric Church. It was his crowd, it was his neck they put an American flag scarf around, it was he who went out into the crowd to meet his fans, it we he who stood in the same spot where carnage would ensue 48 hours later. And he made sure to remind us all that he was a headliner of the Route 91 Harvest Festival as well.
There’s certainly no doubt that Eric Church feels a lot of survivor’s guilt, as well as genuine pain for those who were lost. How can you not? But there was no mention of Jason Aldean, or Jason Aldean’s fans, who were the primary victims in the incident, or the fans of anyone else, or country fans in general. Of course there is some carry over between fans of Eric Church and Jason Aldean, but there are also a lot of Eric Church fans that would never go to a Jason Aldean show. That’s why they like Eric Church. He’s mainstream country’s “Outsider.”
I’m not saying the moment wasn’t important or touching, because it was. And that’s the reason the video has gone viral, and caused such a stir in the country community. But it’s also my job to be honest about how I feel, and I’d rather not say anything at all than lie about my assessment. It was a great moment, but a great moment Church could have shared with everyone of country music, which probably would have made it even more compelling.
I’ve had a lot of critical things to say about Eric Church over the years. But in the last few years, Eric Church has really turned a page, especially with his last record Mr. Misunderstood. And so far, Eric Church has the one who’s been able to encapsulate the emotion we all feel as country music fans better than anyone else in the Las Vegas aftermath. I’m no fan of Jason Aldean, and have had many critical things to say about Aldean over the years as well, and his fans. But when bullets start flying and people fall, we’re all brothers and sisters in the greater country music community, with no boundaries due to differing definitions on what country music is, or who someone’s favorite artist might be, or which artists are openers or headliners.
And let’s not bury the lead here, which is Eric Church presenting a brand new song called “Why Not Me” that he wrote in the aftermath of the massacre, and that is frankly incredible, at least as a naked, acoustic composition. We may be witnessing a similar moment to what we saw with Alan Jackson in the aftermath of 9/11 when it was Alan’s words and music that made for the perfect healing and encapsulation of emotion that the country and world needed to help heal. I hope Eric Church gets a studio version of “Why Not Me” to market soon, releases it as a single, and gives the country music community an anthem and gathering point to grieve the loss this community has felt.
It’s so hard in these moments to know how to walk the line between poignancy and opportunism. I have struggled myself in the last few days on if I should be talking about every new detail coming out of the shooting investigation, and regurgitating the stories of the heroes and the fallen that have been originally reported by others. Or if it’s my place to move forward with business as usual, focus back on the music, if for no other reason than to help get our minds off the tragedy.
Alan Jackson was criticized by some for commercializing 9/11 sympathy, and some will do the same with Eric Church. But as Church said himself, music is the way we get through these moments. And though others have tried valiantly, Eric Church is the one so far, verified by the viral reaction, that has stepped out of the shadows of grief to deliver the light and the message we’ve all been waiting to hear, and put words to the emotions we all feel.