Hungry Heart: How Eric Church made his favorite project ever
Eric Church may be the only country star to walk into a restaurant and walk out with three albums.
Every summer, Church and his family flee the heat of Nashville for the cooler climes of Banner Elk, N.C., where they spend the season at their home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Artisanal, a Michelin-starred eatery nearby, is one of his favorite places to eat in the entire world. He's a huge fan of the calamari, but he also adores the look, feel, and, most importantly, the acoustics of the dining room in which he'd eventually record his next project.
"The whole restaurant is reclaimed barn wood — the ceiling, everything," he says. "Every time I've walked in, I've tapped the floor, and said, 'What a great studio this would be.'"
In January 2020, that's exactly what it became. The year leading up to 2018's Desperate Man, his sparse and contemplative sixth album, was marred with tragedy and close calls: He was deeply affected by the Route 91 Harvest festival massacre in Las Vegas, where he'd headlined two days before a domestic terrorist opened fire on the crowd, killing 58 and injuring hundreds; he underwent emergency surgery to prevent a life-threatening blood clot, which cost him a rib in the process; and he lost his brother, Brandon, suddenly at the age of 36. Church was in dire need of a reset, which is what brought him back to Banner Elk.
"Coming off of Desperate Man, I felt like I needed to do something different," he says. "It was almost like a stopping point for me: I felt like we had reached the end of something, I didn't know what it was. Normally, what an artist would do is fire their producer, get new musicians, and rethink the whole deal. What I thought was, let's put 'em in a weird environment, in a place that's never been a studio, and make everybody, including myself, very uncomfortable."
At Artisanal, Church recorded Heart (out April 16), & (a fan-club exclusive, out April 20), and Soul (April 23) by completely upending his typical routine. The albums feature some of the most liberating and freewheeling work of the 43-year-old country star's career, from bar-band anthems "Heart on Fire" and "Love Shine Down," to "Doing Life With Me," a vulnerable meditation on his marriage, to the slow-burning romance of "Hell of a View." The three-part project also reflects the lightning-in-a-bottle energy of the sessions that made it. Instead of constructing an album over the course of a long stretch, they kept things at breakneck speed. Every day, the band would write a song, record it, and move onto the next one without thinking twice about whatever they'd just finished. It was an ambitious mission, and it didn't start smoothly.
"The fun part about working for Eric is, there's always gonna be a challenge," says Jay Joyce, who's produced every one of Church's albums since his 2006 debut, Sinners Like Me. "It took awhile to make it work; I mean, it was a bit of a mess when we got there. The drums were super loud, nobody could hear each other, so we had to make really fast adjustments. To me, that's when all the interesting things happen, when you have limitations."
Joyce characterizes the process as similar to "going out on a tightrope by yourself without a safety net." For Church, stepping on that high wire forced him to avoid overthinking each song and committing to it before he could question his choices.
"Normally, what would happen is I would write however many songs, and then we would go through the process of, which 10 are we gonna cut?" he explains. "You start breaking them down; you put 'em in categories. In this instance, it was never evaluated that way. What was written that day was recorded that day, good, bad, or ugly. We just did it. I didn't think about the vulnerability. I just wrote about what was on my heart. And I hadn't seen my family in two weeks, so I think a lot of times, you're getting where I am, too, mentally and emotionally. I haven't done that on any album [before]."
The approach also forced some deep soul-searching from Church — about the music, but also about his platform and how he wants to use it. The first song fans heard off Heart & Soul was "Stick That In Your Country Song," a searing glimpse of everyday life in America that doesn't turn a blind eye to packed prisons, poverty, and veterans coping with PTSD. It's an indicting contrast to the pastoral odes of his peers. At the 2020 Academy of Country Music Awards, Church fused his "Country Song" with a recording of Johnny Cash reciting "Ragged Old Flag," his own realist reflection on American identity. (The Cash estate rarely permits the usage of his work for performances such as these, and denied Church the first time he asked; Rosanne and John Carter Cash allowed it after Church wrote a letter explaining his intentions. He considers it to be one of the proudest moments of his career.)
Church has always been vocal about his stance on various issues, from legalizing marijuana (his label at the time initially discouraged him from releasing his 2010 single, "Smoke a Little Smoke") to gun control (he supports the Second Amendment, but criticized the NRA and called for stricter measures in the wake of the Route 91 shooting) to presidential elections (Church didn't vote in 2016 and says he generally hates all politicians). "Country Song," which was nominated for Best Country Solo Performance at this year's Grammys, coincides not only with one of the most furious and transformative periods in American history, but his own reckoning within it. When the NFL invited him to sing the National Anthem alongside Jazmine Sullivan at Super Bowl LV, he did so as a gesture of national unity and a direct refutation of the Capitol siege of January 6. He also believes that calls for change regarding the racist and sexist power structures of country music — "the format," as he refers to it — are necessary and integral to the progression of the genre.
"If you look back historically, diversity of any kind has led to the best music any format has ever made," he says. "I don't believe you should be a white rapper, and not think you should make it in hip-hop; I don't believe you should be an African American female and not think you can't make it in country music. Now, me saying that is one thing, and doing it is the other. So I think trying to work through that mechanism, the fact that we're having the conversation, I do think matters, because up until now, we've not had the f----ing conversation."
Though Church is hesitant to call himself a "leader," this past year has, in many ways, been about realizing that he can start many crucial conversations from his platform — and that he has a platform because of his willingness to do so.
"I don't know that I've thought about that very much in my career, if I'm being honest," says the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year. "I think it's our job, if we're gonna be artists, if we're gonna be pillars of this format, to move the format forward. It's about not staying where you are. It's about actually trying to go somewhere. I believe that's our responsibility. That's our job. It's not gonna last forever; we're only going to have a moment in time, and then it's going to be someone else's job. But for me, that's the way I've always kind of viewed that, and that's the way we've always picked singles and treated albums… we're trying to not just put a song out — we're trying to say something with that song."
Heart & Soul is Church's favorite project to date because it's filter-free, unhinged, and brutally honest on the whole — though "Country Song" is the most potent representation of its spirit. When Church, Joyce, and the band recorded "Country Song," it was a dark and stormy night in Banner Elk: the river beneath the restaurant was surging, the winds were howling outside, and they cut the song in one take because they were afraid the lights would go out.
"The river just looked like it was gonna start flooding everywhere," Joyce remembers. "The current was super fast. Everyone's looking at each other, the power is about to go any second — that was about the craziest moment I've ever had making a song. I can hear it, still, in that track. It was seriously one of those moments where we were lucky we got it on tape."
"The best part about that story is we got to where the big rock & roll guitar comes in, and all of a sudden the lights start flickering," adds Church, with a laugh. "I love what ['Country Song'] says. I love the sentiment and the ballsiness of it. It's very, very aggressive, and in a format that sometimes is not, it goes right to the heart of the matter. And I dig that." He'd already survived the storm. Roaring back at it was just an extremely Eric Church thing to do.