The country music superstar got his start opening up for Rascal Flatts on their 2006 Me And My Gang tour – before promptly being kicked off and replaced by Taylor Swift for playing too long and too loud.
Church has recalled the story many times, explaining that it just wasn’t a good fit (which seems pretty obvious now), and that after getting kicked off the tour he followed Flatts from town to town with his own “Me and Myself” tour, playing shows in small rock clubs in the same cities as the tour he was supposed to be on.
And he admits that Rascal Flatts wasn’t a fan of the move:
“Oh yeah, they hated it. Yeah they knew what we were doing.”
Well obviously Church has done pretty well for himself since then, becoming one of the biggest stars in country music and selling out his own arenas and stadium as he’s racked up hits and fans by doing things his way.
But apparently sometimes doing things his own way doesn’t really work for a city and a music industry that rewards those who play their game, and follow their rules.
If you remember back to CMA Fest in 2019, Church decided to go a different direction than the other performers at Nissan Stadium when he took the main stage. Instead of playing a full-band set of his biggest hits like most artists do for the festival, Church walked out on stage with just his guitar and treated fans to an incredible 30-minute, 17-song acoustic medley unlike anyone else had done.
Church revealed at the time that the idea for the out-of-the-box performance came after he had just set the attendance record for Nissan Stadium the month prior during a stop on his Double Down Tour, and wanted to do something different than he had just done in the same stadium:
“I was having a bit of a brain thing where we just played Nissan and set the record, and in my opinion, the best show of our career, and then I’m back three weeks later, and I’ve got to figure out how to do something that’s gonna be memorable again.
That was the hardest thing earlier in the day. I started working on it – I could do this. I could do that. I thought about doing all covers. I thought about just changing it up completely. I went through all these things in my head, and finally decided that probably the best avenue, the best path was me just to go out and play ‘Mistress (Named Music)’ like I was gonna play a bunch of the stuff – that had taken on its own form during the tour, people knew about it, it’d become popular, they probably thought I was gonna do ‘Piano Man.’
And then to go in and cover myself for those 17 songs, I thought, as it grew and as I kept going, it’d be a really neat thing.
The fun thing for me was during the day was figuring out, ‘How can I play for 30 minutes and not stop’ – and that was my set time – ‘…can I pull all that off and then get back to Mistress at the end?’ So, I had a lot of fun just trying to figure that out. That was a challenge, and I love stuff like that.”
But he didn’t tell anybody what he was doing – and didn’t even send his band home until an hour before the show:
“I was by myself. I didn’t let anybody know.
At this point in time, nobody knew. And I was working on it, working on it, and I wasn’t sure it could happen. I’d think, ‘Eh,’ and I’d go back up and think about it for a minute, and go, ‘Eh.’ My fallback is I’m just gonna play five songs, and I’d go back and work on it again.
Finally I thought, ‘I can do this. This is gonna be, it’s gonna be something. It’s gonna be ballsy.’
I went and told the band, ‘The best thing that can happen is you guys leave, because if you’re still here, there’s a chance I’ll go back and do the other. I need you to go home and then I’m on my own.’
And then I told ‘em what I was doing, and they thought it was cool. I think that’ll be neat. So, they all grabbed their bags and got in their cars and they left. So, at that point in time, we’re about an hour before the show and the band’s gone. The bus is empty.”
The result was a magical moment, one of the highlights of the festival, which featured just Church and his guitar for 30 minutes of nonstop hits, everything from “Drink In My Hand” and “Talladega” to “Sinners Like Me” and “Springsteen.”
Of course, not everybody was a fan of Church changing things up.
In an interview with Esquire, Church revealed that CMA Fest asked him not to come back after the performance.
It seems the problem was that CMA Fest is not only for the live audience, but is also recorded for a TV special that airs later in the summer every year. And apparently, organizers weren’t happy that Church performed a 30-minute set without any breaks, because they weren’t able to break it up to include it in the TV special.
So they told him not to come back.
“The last time I played the damn thing, I went out acoustic and played an entire medley that they never could air because I didn’t have any breaks in it. And basically, they told me not to come back again, ever.
I was like, I tried to give you something special, and people still talk about that thing. But I was kind of invited not to come back.”
I mean, Church is right. It’s still one of the most (and only) memorable performances from CMA Fest in recent years. It was unique, and something that put the music center stage, just an artist and his audience.
But apparently organizers were more worried about the TV special than the music or the fans, which seems emblematic of the country music industry these days.
Nevertheless, Church was indeed invited back to the festival this year – but once again, found himself embroiled in controversy after his performance, which featured new remixes of some his deeper cuts (and didn’t include some of his biggest hits like “Springsteen”) that left fans scratching their heads and disappointed in Church’s set:
“I get it, looking back on it. I had a slot. This isn’t my show—I’m playing with seven other artists.
And I didn’t play ‘Springsteen,’ I didn’t play a bunch of stuff that they probably thought I would play. But it was good! I don’t care what the blowback was. I watched it, and that set was f*cking great.”
Ultimately, Church acknowledged that maybe CMA Fest isn’t the best environment for an artist like him:
“Maybe we’re just not made for stuff like that.”
And maybe he’s right. Because Church is an artist who’s all about the music and his fans. And CMA Fest is a watered down, made-for-TV showcase set up as an opportunity for the industry to pat itself on the back.
That’s just not Church’s style. And thank goodness it never has been, because it’s given us incredible moments like this.