No Grammy, but Church is still our ‘Homeboy’

by Ryan Snyder

You could say that Eric Church’s North Carolina homecoming at the Greensboro Coliseum Saturday night went a lot like the lyrics to his recent No. 1 country single “Drink In My Hand.” He filled it up, he threw down and, judging from the careful attention he paid to the red Solo cup full of whiskey on his mic stand, he likely got a little hungover. If that were the case, he wouldn’t have been alone. Church played to a crowd of 15,458, the largest he’d seen to that point in his young career as an arena-level headliner. It was a mix of pressed-shirt weekend wranglers, good old boys pounding their beer bellies along to the swampy thump of “Creepin’,” and practically every cute country honey within a person’s extended social network. They were matching Church’s every drink, fist pump and euphoric holler.

The roots of the Granite Falls native were just an hour and a half away so attendance no doubt got the home-field bump, but Church has earned this arrival to the big stage. He’s grown his following at every level, cutting his teeth on grimy bar crowds who would have rather heard his Jimmy Buffett and Merle Haggard covers than his earliest originals. Church dedicated one of those, the E. Street romp “Two Pink Lines” from his debut Sinners Like Me, to those who had been there since the beginning. “I can remember when there was 20 of you here and it was electric,” Church said. Referring to his supporting date for Jason Aldean just a little more than one year ago, Church added, “I played here with Jason Aldean and he’s a buddy of mine, but he can kiss my ass tonight.”

Like his friend and rival Aldean, Church is informing the formulaworshipping country-music apparatus with genre-specific elements from outside of the Nashville bubble. Whereas Aldean takes a more heavy-handed, potentially alienating approach by rapping (poorly) on songs like “Dirt Road Anthem,” Church is far subtler. The album version of “Smoke A Little Smoke” fishhooks the listener with a zigzagging acoustic riff, but live, it’s amplified into what’s essentially an electro-house body shock that might otherwise be used to set up an unsuspecting raver to get leveled by the drop. In fact, it’s just begging to be cherry-picked and deconstructed by some astute producer.

But almost everything that Church does on record is magnified in a live setting. “Lotta Boot Left to Fill” became a super-heavy bit of Southern riff rock that would’ve sounded right with a Neil Fallon vocal. His three-song solo acoustic set put his lyrical prowess under the microscope and while he’s not the sentimentalist that Jamey Johnson is, he’s still impermeable in his everyman-ness. Also unlike Johnson, his delivery is still completely lucid in large spaces, shifting tones from conversational to musical with ease.

Church’s song arsenal is indeed adorned with the conventional — there are a lot of numbers about boots and drinking and toking and Jesus and his idols — but there’s genuine hurt to be found underneath the surface of a song like “Jack Daniels.” He closed his 21-song set on “Springsteen,” a song that’s less about a man from whom Church clearly draws his performance identity and more about how the music of the Boss was a reference point for all of his best memories. The song — his most recent single — hasn’t made the kind of chart noise that was expected of the follow-up to “Drink In My Hand,” but its strength goes beyond just being turned up on the Wolf. It’s a lasting impression for the Church faithful as country music realizes its next great artist.