Music

On His New Album, Eric Church Steps Out as a True Country-Music Outsider

After brushes with death in Las Vegas and at home, the Desperate Man isn’t playing it safe.

Eric Church performs during Pepsi's Rock The South Festival on June 2 in Cullman, Alabama.
Eric Church performs during Pepsi’s Rock The South Festival on June 2 in Cullman, Alabama.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Rock the South Festival

The latest album by the arena-packing Nashville star Eric Church is defined by a song that isn’t on it. It’s one that flowed out of him almost overnight after a life-changing event, or a series of them, and maybe a music- and career-changing shift, too—one that subtly complicates Church’s persona and style throughout this new record, Desperate Man. The title alone feels revealing after a string of more confidently defiant album names such as Chief and The Outsiders. The answer to what’s made Church so desperate is in that song, “Why Not Me.” As far as I know, he’s performed it only once: It was a year ago this week on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, just a few days after the horror at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas that left 58 dead and more than 800 wounded, the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Church was one of the festival’s headliners, but he’d already gone home by the night of the massacre, when concertgoers were gunned down wearing T-shirts bearing his face. In “Why Not Me,” it is that twist of fate that plagues him.

It’s the song of a man asking the ancient theodicial question about evil: “The Lord is my refuge and my fortress, my God with whom I trust/ But I’ll never know why the wicked get to prey on the best of us.” It’s also the cry of a populist entertainer who has a deep reciprocal bond with his audience—the Church Choir, as they’re known, to whom he sends out his albums for free and arranges front-of-line tickets for his shows. That feeling of responsibility is such that in “Why Not Me” he questions, in all sincerity, if he shouldn’t have died alongside some of the faces he’d seen in the crowd that weekend. Why not beside “you with your long brown hair flowin’/ And you with your fresh tattooed skin/ And you from the western Virginia/ That you’ll never get to see again. … Why you and not me?”

What the listeners at the Opry and the millions more who later heard the song online didn’t know was that it nearly had been him. Not in Vegas, but a few months earlier when Church, then 40, underwent emergency surgery for a near-fatal blood clot. He’d just wrapped a five-month tour of playing three-hour shows night after night, as if to demonstrate that his emulation of Bruce Springsteen is not confined to the 2011 hit song he wrote in tribute to New Jersey’s own marathon man. He was not long out of his recovery when the Vegas shootings happened. As he told Rolling Stone this summer in an extensive, revelatory interview, his survivor’s guilt after Nevada—coming precisely when he ought to have been grateful to be alive—drove him into a “funk, for six months at least. … There’s a part of me that hopes it haunts me forever.” It was in that state that he set out, with much initial trepidation, to make this new record.

It also led to him speaking out publicly, even as a “Second Amendment guy” and gun owner, about the madness of the National Rifle Association’s lobbying against common-sense gun control. He also discussed his ambivalence about Donald Trump, the NFL players’ protests, and other issues. Those statements drew some predictable backlash from conservative fans, sneering he was finished in country music. But more came out to testify they respected his independence of mind. Which only made sense, since that’s the prime value Church’s songs always have expressed—sometimes to the point of overstatement, making it seem a little too much like a posture or a brand. Suddenly, now, Church wasn’t just declaring himself an “outsider” via romanticized country-rock imagery; he was really acting like one, as a conscientious dissenter to the rulebook of the culture wars.

That said, Desperate Man mainly isn’t a political album, though politics are there to be found—it is not a full-length follow-up to Church’s remarkable 2016 single “Kill a Word,” his duet with the folk revivalist and protest singer (and MacArthur fellow) Rhiannon Giddens, in which they fantasized about putting a permanent end to the concepts of hate and deceit. Instead, what’s most notable about Desperate Man is its sideways step away from the epic, overcharged dynamics of many of Church’s past productions toward a rawer, more exposed sound. Not radically so, but enough that you notice. The guitars tend to slither rather than strike, and drums prowl and stalk instead of thundering. It finds Church less armored for battle, more prepared to undo his leather jacket and reveal the scar across his chest—though mostly just by implication. On the surface it’s still largely an upbeat, crowd-pleasing affair. But its newfound restraint might make it the Eric Church record that finally reaches larger numbers of country skeptics, like the ones who’ve discovered his bluesy country peer Chris Stapleton, or fans of the mature Springsteen himself.

Seeking fresh avenues of expression to fit his altered state, Church and his closest collaborator, producer Jay Joyce, have eased up on their dozen-year insistence on Church as the most rock ’n’ roll guy in country. They expand their stylistic palette to include colors from outside both those boxes—which, ironically enough, allows him to rock in a more credibly modern way. There are frequent soul and R&B accents, with Church occasionally abandoning his trademark gruffness to stretch into his upper vocal register on songs like “Hangin’ Around” and “Higher Wire.” Longtime background singer Joanna Cotten provides call-and-response gospel shouts as rhythmic punctuation. Hand claps and percussion often take the place of Craig Wright’s usual stadium drumming, such as the Latin-conga undertow on the title track and lead single “Desperate Man,” which is blatantly imported from the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”—a groove that’s not only musically but thematically suited to the protagonist’s flight from his own demons. There are even a few electronic effects, like the guitar treatment that opens “Solid,” that sound like they could have come out of The Dark Side of the Moon.

Speaking of devils, though, Church’s post-Vegas discontent is not entirely sublimated; the album is bracketed by two songs that are more explicit about it. The opener, “The Snake,” is a snarling Garden of Eden parable that by Church’s own account is about the corruption of both official political parties: One’s a rattler, the other a copperhead, but both snakes are conspiring to devour the unsuspecting “mice.” As usual for Church, the allegory is longer on feeling than analysis, allowing disparate listeners to read it however they please. But one can’t help noticing that the song shares a title with one of Donald Trump’s favorite and strangest rally set pieces—his recitation of a 1960s anti-establishment black-militant lyric that Trump has contorted into a bedtime story about devious immigrants. I suspect it’s no accident that Church and his co-writers (including Travis Meadows, himself a former preacher turned hard-bitten bard) have re-adapted Trump’s trope into a caution against political manipulation.

And the record ends with the song “Drowning Man,” which reasserts the pox-on-all-your-houses sentiment with an emphasis on Church’s long-standing strongest political affiliation: class consciousness. It finds its protagonist (a twin, the title suggests, of the guy from “Desperate Man”) in the standard country-song position of dousing his sorrows on a barstool, except his woes here aren’t romantic but about the vanities of the wealthy. The song recalls one of the most memorable tracks from Church’s debut album, 2006’s Sinners Like Me, “How ’Bout You?”—where Church groused, “I ain’t got no blue-blood trust fund I can dip into/ Yeah, I wish Uncle Sam would give a damn about the man whose collar’s blue.” Here he calls up the image of that star-spangled graybeard once more, singing, “We put the smoke in a stack, put the seed in the ground/ While Lady Liberty turns her back and Uncle Sam just turns around.” Of course it’s possible to take this as echoing Trump’s populist pitch to Rust Belt states in the 2016 campaign, though Church has pronounced himself more of a Bernie Sanders man. But there’s another clue within the song itself when Church sings about his dream of escape: “I just want to get right down at the firelight/ Let my baby sing ‘Hold Me Tight.’ ” That’s an allusion to the 1968 proto-reggae classic by Johnny Nash, whose opening line is the same one Church repeatedly directs here at the one percenters: “I don’t want to hear about it.” It’s a signal that for Church, blue-collar resentments don’t have to equal racial antagonisms.

For all his habitual machismo, Church always has leaned to the left side of the Nashville spectrum, which is part of why I’ve been drawn to him more than most of the manly men of his country generation. One of his first hits, “Two Pink Lines,” referred openly to home-pregancy tests and premarital sex—“Six weeks in, she was three weeks late”—and with 2009’s “Smoke a Little Smoke” (not to mention 2011’s “I’m Gettin’ Stoned”) he established himself firmly in country’s pro-cannabis vanguard long before Kacey Musgraves rolled one up in song. In some ways, in fact, this album is a little more awkward in its songwriting and delivery than its more straightforward predecessors, but that comes along with the effort to expand his range.

There’s still plenty of Church’s other standbys on Desperate Man: his themes of faith, nostalgia, romantic fidelity, and small-town pieties (he grew up in North Carolina, where he still maintains a mountain home, along with his sprawling country place in Nashville). Some are affecting and others more anodyne. There are a couple of Dad Rock moments from this father of two boys, including a slightly clunky one about “Monsters” under the bed (though for adults, he intimates, the worse ones dwell inside), and the lovely paternal-advice song “Some of It”: “Some of it you learn the hard way/ Some of it you read on a page/ Some of it comes from heartbreak/ Most of it comes with age.” The passing nod there to the validity of book-learning is a bit out of character for country, but not for Church, who in the past has name-checked the likes of Jackson Pollock, Jeff Tweedy, and Elvis Costello, not to mention veteran singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard, which led to Hubbard co-writing this album’s title track.

My favorite thing about Church, in fact, is how much of a music fan he is and how often he celebrates it in song, with past singles such as “Springsteen,” “Record Year,” and “Mr.
Misunderstood
.” Here that enthusiasm comes out in a song called “Hippie Radio,” which within its completely standard narrative structure (kid drives in truck with dad; guy drives in truck with girl; guy drives his own kid home from the maternity ward), crams in shout-outs to Creedence Clearwater Revival, Billy Idol, Warren Zevon, Harry Chapin, the Jackson 5, and Labelle. Notice how unconcerned Church seems to be about genuflecting to country elders here. In fact, by calling it “hippie” radio, he’s making a kind of across-the-aisle gesture to a subculture Nashville hasn’t always been so friendly to.

The other soundtrack-centric track, though it doesn’t name any particular artists, might be Desperate Man’s best. The second-to-last song, “Jukebox and a Bar,” finds Church musing that none of the miracles of modern technology—self-driving cars, GPS, and Viagra—can soothe a wounded soul better than a drink and some good music. The homespun conceit is mostly a vehicle for some delightful and intricate wordplay on this Church solo creation: “You can keep your fancy potions/ And your incandescent notions/ As for me and my barely beating heart/ There’s no better prescription/ For the human condition/ Than a jukebox and a bar.”

It’s another hint that, after his two near-death experiences, Church may be getting a little less satisfied by pursuing broad-stroke, sure-thing, shout-along radio hits and more concerned with exploring all the facets of being alive. It might make for a less consistently assured performance than fans are used to, with a few more experimental misfires. But rather than go on repeating himself, Church is adding layers of nuance and an openness to change. If he’s learned anything from the past couple of years, it must include that nothing guarantees safety in life, so there’s no point in making choices—including political ones—based on fear. As he sings in “Some of It” here, “You don’t get to do some things again.”