Last night, I saw Eric Church perform at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, and it was absolutely epic. The forty-two-year-old country star still knows how to sell out stadiums and keep them packed until 1:00 a.m. weekend after weekend. Age and kids haven’t slowed him down at all; he was still throwing shots back with fans, running back and forth across a stage the width of a football field, and giving it a hundred percent all night long.

Making concert experiences unique has been an objective of Church’s ever since 2005, when he was still perking up the ears of drunk patrons at small town dive bars who came for cheap drinks but stayed for the unexpectedly amusing antics of the band. It’s a goal that’s gotten more challenging the more illustrious his career becomes. As the venues get bigger and less intimate, it becomes harder to make a show stand out. In 2015, Church included a dozen tour dates throughout Europe, despite his lack of popularity outside the States, just to see who’d show up and how much noise he could make. In 2017, he decided to forego opening acts for the “Holdin’ My Own” tour and just give four-hour marathons of straight Church for everyone in attendance. It’s hard for a solo artist to keep attention that long, let alone have the stamina to rock all night, over and over again. In addition, he pledged before the tour kicked off that no two set lists would be the same, because it was important to him that each fan felt that their show was distinct. And truly, the colossal scale of “Holdin’ My Own” was met with spectacular success. Now, in 2019, feeling the itch to hit the road again, Church asked his fans in a grainy YouTube video where one goes next, when one has already performed with as much gusto and diversity as can be mustered. Effort was already being given at a one hundred percent rate. “How do we top that?” Church speculated, “I think we double down. Not one unique show in every city, but two unique shows in every city. Friday and Saturday, back to back, no opening acts.” Every weekend for five months. This show in Nashville was supposed to be the last stop on the tour, but back in March, with twenty-one dates to go, Church announced that he didn’t like having only two months to go, so he tacked on another six months’ worth of concerts! The man is a machine.

I’d say it’s a gross injustice that Eric Church has never won Entertainer of the Year at the CMAs, but the truth is, Church doesn’t really embrace country’s mainstream spotlight anyway. Back in 2013, when Chief won Album of the Year, Church chafed at the idea of his music being viewed as the epicenter of modern country. He relishes the reputation he’s garnered as Nashville’s resident rebel, someone who’s popular enough to fill a stadium yet chooses to confound the record labels instead. At this point, EMI and Capitol Records Nashville realize the futility in trying to sway his opinions and have given him a very long leash. At the expense of more radio airplay, Church goes to bed with a clean conscience about his music. He refers to genre as an “outdated concept,” and creates songs without commercial success in mind.

And yet he is particular about track listing. When he released The Outsiders, he urged fans not to put the album on shuffle, saying it was imperative they listen to the whole thing in order. With Church, some things matter immensely while others don’t at all.

He hates the fact that record companies dictate what music should go on the air, what’s popular, and where the trend ought to go. After writing Mr. Misunderstood in monastic secrecy and producing it with an unknown, mom-and-pop record company outside Nashville (you can do that??), he mailed physical copies of the album to all members of the Church Choir, his online fan club, for free. No media announcements, no fanfare, nothing. His own record label didn’t even know! The only reason word broke out was because Church fan Redditors began asking each other what the heck they’d just received and why. When asked about the surprise album publicity stunt, Church shrugged and responded, “The fans should get the music first.”

Back in 2006, Church’s debut album didn’t seem like such a maverick. You still have to break into the scene, after all. “Guys Like Me,” “How ‘Bout You,” and “These Boots,” had the same elements and instrumentals as the rest of the genre, though with much better lyrics to be sure. They hooked me, anyway. But sprinkled among the crowd-pleasers were hits like “Lightning,” a sobering dirge about the implications of capital punishment, and “Two Pink Lines,” which captures the emotions surrounding a pregnancy scare.

By the time Church came out with his second album, I was already calling him my favorite artist. We actually got to meet once, back in 2011. He was a pretty big name in country circles by then, and through a crazy, “right place, right time” fluke at a music festival, I happened upon a VIP backstage pass to meet the man himself. I remember my friend and I giddily debating whether we’d address him as “Eric” or “Mr. Church” before settling on “Sir,” which seemed the most reverent. I was wearing an Appalachian State t-shirt for the occasion—Church’s alma mater—in hopes that he might spot me in the crowd and give a thumbs up or a shout out, and that would’ve been best case scenario. But now I was actually meeting Eric Church face to face!

It was very brief, but I do remember fan-girling hard, melting when he shook my hand, and blubbering when he asked if I was a Michigan football fan. App State had beaten Michigan in an upset for the ages just four years prior, yet all I could gush out was “Well, I guess I’m an even bigger Eric Church fan…”

I saw him again exactly one week later in Mount Pleasant. He was opening for Toby Keith, but the most loyal fans that day all seemed to be there for Church.

During college, I saw Eric Church at the Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek, which was also a unique experience. The small venue had no seats, just an empty floor where fans moshed as close as they could toward the stage. I’ve since seen him in much larger, more respectable settings, but there was something intimate about that Battle Creek concert I’ll always remember fondly.

The next time I saw Eric Church in concert was at Ford Field in Detroit, and I was finally old enough to buy stadium beers. The Dutchman in me recoiled at the idea of spending $11 on a Bud Light, but then Church played “Drink in my Hand,” and I was no longer on the fence.

In college, Church came to Grand Rapids, and now we could pregame properly. Just like the lyrics we so fervently sang suggested, I snuck a flask of Jack Daniels into the venue in my boot, despite hating the taste. My fandom had reached that level of devotion.

It’s been a few years since I last saw Eric Church at Van Andel Arena, and I’ve certainly changed since then. Up in the nosebleeds at Nissan Stadium, I was thankful my section opted to sit for the duration of the concert. I no longer have the stamina to pregame with Jack shots the way I used to, and I’ll be honest, I was ready to hit the sack long before the concert actually ended. It was nice to watch Eric Church go crazy on a stage so far away without the obligation to rally.

But Church has changed, too. There are new albums that weren’t out four years ago. Not that Church ever pandered to the bro-country party crowd, but there is a certain thematic maturity that wasn’t there before. He’s often changing diapers backstage mere minutes after closing out the encore. He has songs out now about his kids, Alzheimer’s, and the Las Vegas shooting. He’s candid during performances and will willingly admit when he needs to go to bed (though that didn’t happen last night).

Every Eric Church concert I’ve attended has had a very different vibe to it, and yesterday’s show certainly contributed to the range. Seeing the sunset behind the Nashville skyline from the nosebleeds of Nissan Stadium was a special moment, made even more so by the fact that Taryn was with me this time. It was my wife’s first Eric Church concert ever, so I’m glad I was able to show her what all the hype was about.

So are six concerts enough to finally glean the scope and sound of this artist? Well yeah, probably… but I’ll end with this: among those extra six months’ worth of concerts that Church tacked on to his Double Down Tour, a couple of those dates are back-to-back Grand Rapids shows. A friend of mine mentioned he’s getting a group together and figured he might as well extend the invite to the biggest Church fan he knew.

I couldn’t resist. What can I say, I just really love Church.

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