Eric Church Brings Contemplative, Career-Spanning Set to Country … – Billboard

On Tuesday (Aug. 29), Eric Church became the 18th artist to perform as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s prestigious artist residency program, as he kicked off the first of two nights of intimate, career-spanning shows at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s 700+ seat CMA Theater. Launched in 2003, a prestigious residency has since celebrated the artistic magnitude of artists including Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Kenny Rogers, Connie Smith, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson and Miranda Lambert.

For Church, it also marked a full-circle moment, as acclaimed journalist Robert K. Oermann noted that just seventeen years ago, Church had launched his major-label recording career with an album release party for Sinners Like Me in that same building, at the 200+ seat Ford Theater. Back then, Oermann had asked the tiny audience of ardent Church fans if they were ready for “a kick in the pants.” That night at the CMA Theater, he guaranteed the audience of passionate fans — many of them Church Choir members — were sure to get “a kick in the heart.”

He returned to the hallowed Hall as a Country Music Association entertainer of the year winner, a 10-time Grammy nominee, and the subject of his own exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, aptly titled Eric Church: Country Heart, Restless Soul.

Seated front and center on a stool, and backed by his longtime band and backup singers, Church embarked upon a career-cataloging set that chronicled his evolution into one of country music’s biggest artists. The early portion of the evening centered on his fierce determination to rise above an onslaught of negative early career press, as a video screen outfitted to resemble an vintage television rattled off reviews that disparaged his early music and performances.

From the beginning of his career, Church has done things his own way and colored outside of the lines, daring to dig deeper, musically and creatively. He was kicked off an early tour for playing too loud and too long; in 2016, he surprised the industry and his fan club members by releasing his Mr. Misunderstood album directly to members of his Church Choir fanclub first, by mailing out vinyl and CD copies directly to them before anyone in the industry had heard it. He took on ticket scalpers in a bid to keep real fans in the concert seats at reasonable prices.

But early on, he also knew the power of building a devoted fanbase. He launched his CMA Theater set with songs including “How ‘Bout You,” “Sinners Like Me” and “Smoke a Little Smoke” — songs that displayed his dogged determination, but also positioned him as an advocate for those who are downtrodden, left of center or simply determined to leave their own unique legacy.

From there, the career-spanning set touched on his breakthrough projects, and songs that showed him to be a songcraft expert. From his CMA album of the year-winning project Chief, he performed “Springsteen” and “Like Jesus Does.” From The Outsiders, he offered “Give Me Back My Hometown” and “Talladega.” From another CMA album of the year-winning album, Mr. Misunderstood, came the title track and “Record Year,” and from Desperate Man came the wisdom-imbued “Some of It” and the tender-and-tough “Monsters.” Along the way, Church has been rewarded with 10 Billboard Country Airplay No. 1 hits. He’s also become one of the chief musical architects infusing a new wave of country music with this soul-fueled, heartland rock sensibilities, layered with keen observations and a knack for a killer hook.

The evening had moments of hand-raising, righteous rock and moments of somber tribute. As the crowd rose to its feet and cheers of “Chief!” swelled throughout the theater at the set’s conclusion, Church said, “I hope you guys enjoyed it as much as I did.” Surveying the past nearly two hours of career-spanning music, he noted, “It was tough at times, but you know what? That’s our life. That’s our career. Everything you saw tonight is who we are and that’s unbelievably how we got in this room. It has been the greatest honor of my life to do this.”

Below, we look at five standout moments from the Chief’s opening night as a Country Music Hall of Fame artist-in-residencce.

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