That means he needs as many of those fans as possible to get vaccinated. In a CBS News poll published in March, 33% of Republican voters surveyed said they had no intention of getting a shot, compared with 10% of Democrats. Church’s fans fall across the political spectrum — and he feels he’s uniquely positioned to convince fence-sitters to hop over to his side, not browbeat anti-vaxxers into compliance. “If you believe you shouldn’t, I don’t have a problem with it. I’m a liberty guy, too. I get it,” he says. “But I view this a little differently than most other things. We’ve never encountered this.”
Eric Church hardly seemed destined to become an ambassador for country music. From the earliest days of his career, he has never particularly cared for satisfying industry expectations. In 2010, unhappy with Universal Music Group Nashville’s choices for the first singles from his second album, Carolina, he demanded “Smoke a Little Smoke” come next.
“I would look at me now and go, ‘No fucking way we’re doing that,’ ” recalls Church with a laugh. At the time, though, it was his Alamo: He threatened to walk if the label didn’t agree. UMG Nashville blinked — and, later, came to trust Church’s instincts: “Smoke” became huge with his live audience, setting up 2011’s Chief, the album that made him a bona fide arena headliner.
A couple of years earlier, on the heels of his debut, Sinners Like Me, Church’s demands didn’t meet quite so patient a response. He was opening for Rascal Flatts, an act as mainstream as he was edgy, and he wasn’t too keen on abiding by certain tour restrictions. At Madison Square Garden in New York, he deliberately (and egregiously) exceeded his allotted stage time. Rascal Flatts fired him — and gave his spot to a 16-year-old Taylor Swift.
“It sucked that we lost the chance for those large audiences to experience him so early in the career, but when I heard the reason he was fired, I laughed and applauded,” says UMG Nashville chairman/CEO Mike Dungan. “It was Eric being a badass, and I was proud of him.” The label funded Church’s next move: playing local clubs at every remaining tour stop on the group’s own show nights. He called it the Me and Myself outing — a play on Rascal Flatts’ “Me and My Gang” title.
“That was a real jerk move in a way,” John Peets, Church’s longtime manager at Q Prime South, says with a laugh. But it was also a career-defining one. “You can roll over, or you can stand up knowing you’re going to live with a hurricane wind in your face and this might be the end,” he continues. “Which guy are you going to be? I think that was one of the first kind of big, public things that set that tone.”
Another came on Nov. 11, 2020, the night Church won entertainer of the year at the Country Music Association Awards after coming up short three previous times. He and Peets both saw the win as a directive to lead the best way Church knew how: by setting an example for a sensible return to touring. “I feel some responsibility now,” says Church. As Peets adds: “You’re going to wear the sash for a year, you’re the leading entertainer. Maybe there are some things that we do a little differently because of that. That kind of led into helping forge a responsible way to come back to work.”