But around 6:30pm on Tuesday, I knew that I would regret it if I didn’t go. So I pulled the trigger, and headed out the door to go downtown for night one of Church’s run as the Hall of Fame’s Artist-in-Residence.
And damn am I glad I did.
I’ve seen Church too many times to count at this point – including just a couple of weeks ago in Chicago on his Outsiders Revival Tour.
But I had never seen him like this – and neither had anybody else in the 500-seat CMA Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The intimate venue provided a setting unlike the massive amphitheaters he’s playing on his current tour, or the arenas and stadiums he usually fills with members of his fan club, the Church Choir.
When we walked in, they quickly told us that there were no pictures or videos allowed – supposedly at the request of Church himself.
And the result was an hour and a half to put down the cell phones and unplug from the outside world on an extraordinary journey where the music took center stage, guiding his fans through the career of one of the most unlikely success stories in country music.
Church took the stage and sat on a stool that was slightly off-center. The reason he wasn’t center stage is because on the left side of was a TV screen that would, between songs, play headlines and stories about Church from throughout his career: The ups and downs of not only his nearly 20 years in the music business, but in his personal life too.
He started the show with an acoustic performance of his new song “On the Road,” a Merle Haggard-inspired tribute to Church’s life and career traveling the country and entertaining fans.
And then the TV on stage behind Church reminded the audience what critics were saying about him at the time of his first album, Sinners Like Me – and it wasn’t pretty.
His lyrics weren’t good. He didn’t stand out. The headlines went on and on, flashing across the TV screen as Church watched and listened to the early reviews with a grin on his face. The audience laughed at the words from the “experts” who so clearly got this one wrong.
Church was then joined onstage by his band for a rocking version of “How ‘Bout You,” his first single from his debut album, and his first song to chart at country radio – though it peaked at #14.
From there, the videos that played presented a time capsule of Church’s storied career.
There was the quote from Rascal Flatts about Church getting kicked off the tour. (The audience cheered that one too).
And there was a call from his label about a video that Church had released to promote his fourth album, The Outsiders – a video that seemingly took aim at Taylor Swift (who replaced Church on that Rascal Flatts tour) with the message that “One Will Rise. One Will Fall.”
Church got a big kick out of that one as the video played, shrugging his shoulders as the audience laughed.
(Church would pull the video soon after it was released, and replace it with another one that praised Taylor and her career).
But interspersed with the videos reminding fans of the highlights – and lowlights – of his career, were his performances of the songs that made Church such a powerhouse, and one worthy of a residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
There was “Sinners Like Me,” the title track from that debut album that had earned Church so much criticism. And there was “Smoke a Little Smoke,” a song from his sophomore album Carolina that Church released at a time when he knew he had to do something different to get the industry’s attention – a gamble that paid off despite the warnings from his label.
And of course there was “Springsteen” from his critically-acclaimed album Chief, which rocketed Church into the ranks of the country music superstars.
Along the way he also performed hits like “Mr. Misunderstood” from his 2015 surprise album of the same name, and even “Monsters” from Desperate Man.
It was unlike the Church shows that you’re used to. He stayed seated the entire time, in stark contrast to the high-energy, chest-pounding performances Eric Church fans have come to expect. In fact at times it seemed like he was having a hard time adjusting to the setting that was the polar opposite of the environments that have made him one of the best live shows in country music.
But tonight, it was all about the music.
Throughout the show, the music served as a chronology of his career as an artist that almost seemed to mirror Church’s growth as a man and as a father.
But as much as the performance was a celebration of Church’s incredible career, and an in-your-face middle finger of sorts to those who doubted him along the way, it also detailed the personal struggles that Church has overcome since setting out on his journey in music.
There was the blood clot that he suffered after his 2019 Double Down Tour that nearly took his life, a memory that played on the screen before Church launched into a performance of “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” from his 2018 album Desperate Man.
And in one of the most emotional moments of the show, Church paid tribute to the victims of the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting with a performance of “Why Not Me,” the heart-wrenching song that he performed on the Grand Ole Opry just days after the tragedy (and to my knowledge, hasn’t performed since).
You could hear a pin drop in the small theater. It was a special moment.
But as he finished the song, Church walked off the stage and was replaced by a surprise guest: country legend Vince Gill.
A video played behind Gill that told of the death of Church’s brother Brandon in 2018. And as the video wrapped up, Vince began strumming the familiar introduction to his emotional classic, “Go Rest High On That Mountain.”
It was a performance that left more than a few people in the theater in tears – including Church, who was wiping his eyes as he walked back on stage.
Church rounded out the trip down memory lane with a performance of “Through My Ray Bans,” his tribute to his fans that was released at a time when live music had been brought to a halt by the COVID pandemic.
And after that, for the first time all night, Church addressed the crowd himself, speaking on the honor of being the Artist-in-Residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and thanking those who have helped him along the way.
He then ended the show with what he called his favorite song he’s ever recorded. Church admits that it took him a while to declare a song his favorite, but on a night when he was surrounded by his own people, celebrating his own Hall of Fame-worthy career, it was only fitting that he ended the special evening with “Holdin’ My Own.”
To say it was a special night – for the fans, and for Church himself – would be an understatement.
In the end, it was worth every penny for the tickets that I bought at the last minute. But now I’m once again going to be faced with the same decision: Do I go back for night two?