In 2021, Eric Church, ‘the Chief’, is the closest thing Nashville has to Johnny Cash. ‘I wanted to make people really uncomfortable,’ Eric told a Making Of video about taking his team to a restaurant in North Carolina which they turned into a studio for Jay Joyce to work his magic. ‘It put creativity in the driving seat’, recording a song the day it was written, which broke the silos between songwriter, musician and production. With so many songs to listen through, he was able to become a fan, enjoying the song afresh.
The set opens with the 100-percenter Heart on Fire; that’s music and lyrics by Eric Church. Why has he put this as side one track one? Maybe to prove he can do it alone, maybe to put the spotlight on him as the curtains are pulled back. It’s a three-chord boogie which namechecks Elvis and sounds like joy, and also a bar band.
The first studio recording that we heard from the project was Stick That In Your Country Song, which is one of Eric’s moodier songs and even finds room for support for overworked, underpaid teachers. Once again he refers to speakers in a car, which seems to be the best place to listen to Eric Church outside of a stadium.
Bunch of Nothing is full of character and groove. It was written with Jeff Hyde, who was in the room for Springsteen, Kill A Word and Record Year. It’s a honkytonker with lines like ‘kick Saturday in the ass’ as Eric encourages a friend to have fun. The best moment is when he sings ‘Come on Jo!’ which reminds me that a key part of Eric’s sound is the foregrounded backing vocalist Joanne Cotton. A Julliard graduate, classical music’s loss is rock’n’roll’s gain.
Never Break Heart (‘It’s OK to cry but don’t never break heart’) was written with Luke Dick. It’s gentle country-rock with some sprinklings of piano about love and stuff (‘Draw a line in the sand…pull tight on a slack heart’) and also music: ‘Legs are made for dances’. The extended outro allows time for reflection, which helps slow the pace before the ballad Crazyland.
Both that track and People Break are Luke Laird co-writes (Luke helped Eric write Drink In My Hand, his first number one): the former is a tale of barflies and regret, with blokes ‘givin’ up on their last give-a-damn’. The arrangement is gorgeous, starting and ending as an acoustic number, with a great second half. People Break is a gentle acoustic tune sung beautifully and mournfully by Eric, who is at ‘a spot where I wonder where you are…a broken heartland’, which is a stunning lyric.
Heart of the Night has a fabulous chorus, while the song changes both key and time signature for the middle eight. Russian Roulette is about listening to the radio while going cross country, ‘lead foot in a steel toe’ on the accelerator of a Chevrolet and, quoting himself, says how ‘I need a melody without a memory’, the anti-Springsteen. The music builds around him, while his voice is phased and ‘boxed in’ for a few bars. It’s a convincing bit of rock’n’roll music that can sit beside Give Me Back My Hometown in a set.
Love Shine Down is driven by a guiro, that percussion instrument where you run a drumstick across some grooves, while the lyric creates a sense of sitting by the beach: ‘Message in a bottle by the sea/ An SOS from this SOB’. The production is radio-friendly and Eric is preaching fidelity from his ‘sinner’s heart’, ‘done with not doing you right’.
Eric is so far ahead of so many artists in town and each track is a synthesis of songwriter, production and arrangement. The Soul disc features my three favourite of the dozen or so pre-released songs: future classic Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones, the punchy Bad Mother Trucker, the funky loop- and falsetto-led Break It Kind of Guy and the radio smash Hell of a View. Each showcases a different side of the Eric Church Experience, respectively stool-sitting songwriter, rock’n’roll bluesman, funkateer and radio-friendly unit shifter.
The disc begins with the gentle Rock & Roll Found Me, a track which contains all four Church elements in four minutes. The song ambles along instead of banging and crashing like a lot of tracks in his catalogue. Joanne Cotton again gives good value while Eric rambles on about all the things he used to be before ‘a black man’s guitar’ appears and Ode to Billie Joe is given a generous quote. Both songs are in D major, so maybe that set the writers off and caused them to quote it.
The other brand new tracks which have been held back until release date include the acoustic mood-setter and 100%-er Jenny. Most couplets contain the name Jenny, testament to how much Eric needs the lady: ‘Gotta get out, gotta get gone’ he begs, like the desperate man from his 2018 album, which Heart & Soul betters. As things stand Mr Misunderstood has more hits per pound, but not one of the 18 tracks on the set is a dud.
Look Good and You Know It opens like an old Muscle Shoals song before becoming a pop song set to a bass riff. It’s a neat homage that’ll make you click your fingers, much like the Stapleton song You Should Probably Leave. Where I Wanna Be is in the same metier, opening with some caterwauling guitar and Eric attracted to his beloved ‘like a moth to a flame’. It’s a list of situations that prove his fidelity, and in places it sounds like Mick’n’Keef, probably on purpose; the best part is the abrupt finish, which is left in rather than opting to fade out. Eric’s wife will dig these songs and, if you have one, yours will too.
Bright Side Girl opens with some pronounced plucking before Eric pops up with lyrics about wanting the sky to fall but, as always, love can make things better. Check out the use of one particular chord, the VII chord that makes its presence felt; you’ll know it when you hear it as it seems odd and out of place in a song about how lovely a lady can be. The arrangement is fascinating too, with some power chords in the middle eight.
Eric Church remains a serious artist, able to follow a six-disc live set with a relatively pared-back two-CD-and-vinyl set. Every Church Choir member will have a favourite tune: mine are Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones, Hell of a View, Crazyland and Love Shine Down, which are all very poppy. There isn’t a great deal of ‘heavy’ on this set, which often turns me off Eric’s stuff, but he’s a master of melody and performance.
Eric does justice to the music of his heroes and I am sure he’s looking at coming back to the UK in 2022. I’ll be there with jeans on.