Country superstar Eric Church currently reigns as seven-time ACM Award winner, four-time CMA Award winner, and 10-time GRAMMY nominee—and he has the stories to show it. The North Carolina native, who recently announced his upcoming seventh triple studio album, Heart & Soul and Gather Again Tour, points to specific interactions with his defining influences that shaped the trajectory of his artist career.
Church tells Apple Music’s Zane Lowe about one of those highlighted chapters in his spanning storybook that came after Taylor Swift had just replaced him as the opening act on the Rascal Flatts Tour following his 2006 debut. “So after that happened, I was in a real not a good spot as a brand new country music artist. I think they were the biggest tour at the time, and we got fired,” he recalls to Lowe. “And I got a call from Bob Seger. And Bob said, ‘Hey, I love your Sinners Like Me album.’ And at that time, I was getting 15 minutes to play in front of Rascal Flatts. And he goes, ‘How about coming out and opening for me, and I’ll give you 45 minutes.’
Sinners Like Me ran hardly 40 minutes across 12 tracks, but that didn’t stop the emerging artist from accepting the gracious offer. He recalls the first show in Cincinnati, and Seger walked out after Church’s opening set and played, “Roll Me Away.” Standing on the side stage, with his pride-beaming mother and father—”big Seger fans”—was one of those defining moments. Church adds, “My big Seger thing is, he in a lot of ways, saved my career. But more importantly, he saved my faith in music.”
In 2014, Church had the opportunity to join George Strait on his farewell tour that closed at Texas Stadium—an experience he described as “unbelievable.” The first night he opened was an acoustic show in Omaha. At the end of the night, he and his wife walked onto Strait’s bus. “He’s up there and we’re talking about music and I mentioned James Brown,” says Church. “He goes, ‘I love James Brown.’ And I said, ‘Oh good.’ So George has got his boots off and he’s in gold-toe black socks, like the dress socks, and said, ‘Well, let’s play some James Brown, come on.’ He laughs, and continues, “Next thing I know George Strait is tearing down in the middle of the bus. My wife’s tearing down and they’re all dancing. I’m watching George Strait dance in gold-toe socks to James Brown. It’s one of the coolest, damned things I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Another memorable milestone comes from who Church tells Lowe is his “favorite band of all time”—The Band. Defending his confident decision saying, “Just because, I think they weren’t together very long, and if you just think about what they were, they were just such misfits and they didn’t really like each other, which is like a lot of bands.
“Anybody alive, go watch The Last Waltz,” he pleads. “And watch Robbie and watch Levon and watch Danko and watch the intermingling of that. That is a f-king great band. Church continues, “That’s what they were here to do. And keep in mind, they were Bob Dylan’s backup band. I mean, they played for Bob when he went electric.”
More than The Band, Church reveres Levon Helm. The artist was invited to play with Helm at his hallowed studio, known as “The Barn” in upstate New York, near Woodstock. The performances brought in nearly 400 audience members who paid a premium. That night, Church and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band joined the luminary artist on stage. Church remembers, “And afterwards, we got to go hang out in his kitchen. I smoked some marijuana with Levon, and we sat there and we talked about where music is and where it’s going. And it was one of those nights as an artist that I’ll never forget. Yeah, I was incredibly, looking back on it, humbled [by the] experience.”
At the time, Helm was sick with cancer. Church recalls convincing him, as they sat around playing drums and singing, to sing his version of “The Weight.” Church believes that the greatest thing about music is that everyone is a fan. “I don’t care if you’re Levon Helm. I don’t care if you’re Bruce Springsteen. I don’t care if you’re Mick Jagger,” he says. That night, playing music with a muse who would soon depart, he felt that on a new level.
“We’re all fans of somebody,” Church continues. “And being able to be in that moment and experience that is what makes music really special, and carry between all those different genres and people.”
Listen to Eric Church’s full At Home With interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe here.