Eric Church doesn’t typically talk on his off days. His voice needs the rest.
“It takes me from the time I walk offstage until the next night at showtime to get ready to do it again,” he says when making a rare exception and calling from the road somewhere between Bozeman and Boise. The country star is on a mission: to deliver a marathon show. North of 3½ hours. An intermission. 39 songs. “By the end of the night we’re spent,” Mr. Church says of the arena gigs on his “Holdin’ My Own” tour, ones that feel more like a rock riot and find him trotting out nearly his entire discography. “Once we cross the two-hour mark it’s like … this guy’s serious. He’s really gonna stay here.’”
Where: PPG Paints Arena, Uptown.
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Tickets: $69-$89; ticketmaster.com.
Ask Mr. Church why he puts himself through the mental and physical grind required to deliver such an epic show, and he’ll tell you it’s simple:
“There should be no way we should be able to hold people’s attention that long,” he says. He is not referring to himself or his top-notch band’s ability to deliver the musical goods. Rather, the North Carolina native says, it amazes him he’s that rare top-tier country artist who has built a massive following, and to that end can deliver a monumental concert, with only a handful of No. 1 singles.
“Just look at what radio songs we’ve had,” he says. “We’ve only hit the top on five singles. There’s other artists in their career that you would consider mid-level ones that have more No. 1s than we do. It’s not like we have 39 or 40 hits. I’m not George Strait or Kenny Chesney. I’m not those guys. They can probably go out and play 50 No. 1s. We shouldn’t be able to have one of the longest shows right now.”
And Mr. Church, an avowed competitor, made sure his was indeed the longest. For the first few weeks of the tour he’d been playing 36 songs a night. But then he read an article that said Garth Brooks was playing roughly 27 songs a night, Bruce Springsteen, 33, and Paul McCartney, 39. “I told the band … we’re going to 39!” He laughs hysterically. “We’re at least gonna tie McCartney.”
Not that he didn’t have reservations. Mr. Church had only seen intermissions, for example, at jam band shows such as Widespread Panic. “That’s really not been done in country,” he says. “I was nervous about that. Like, would anybody be there when we start the second set? Or would they just say, ‘Screw it. I’m going to my house.’”
Ultimately, the show works, Mr. Church says, because every song he plays “gets a reaction” — no matter whether a B side like “Carolina’s” “Without You Here,” which the singer calls “probably the least popular song on our least successful album,” or his biggest hits like “Chief’s” “Springsteen” and “Record Year,” the nostalgia trip of a hit single on last year’s “Mr. Misunderstood.” This level of commitment to an artist, he notes, is rare in country music. Fans have adopted Mr. Church as one of their own.
On a recent night, the singer recalls seeing an audience member forcibly remove another from his seat because he sat down during a slower song. “They’re serious about this!” he says with a laugh. “I literally watched the guy put his finger in the other guy’s face. And he didn’t sit down again. That’s passion.”
Still, it’s hard for Mr. Church to pinpoint exactly why he’s fostered such devotion from fans. Perhaps, he says, it’s because early on in his career, circa his debut album, 2006’s “Sinners Like Me,” when he was largely ignored by Nashville’s Music Row and was stuck playing opening gigs at small bars and clubs, early fans felt an ownership over his career. Or maybe it’s the fact that he’s made an effort to keep ticket prices low, famously going after scalpers and canceling 25,000 tickets suspected of being bought by them for his current tour.
Whatever the reason, Mr. Church says, every time he plays his current single “Kill a Word,” a song he notes can be taken “a couple different ways depending on your political view,” his mind is blown to see the entire crowd join in for a massive sing-along.
“I’d knock out temptation’s teeth/ I’d sever evil, let it bleed/ Then light up wicked, stand and watch it burn,” he sings in his show. “And then you get 20,000 people coming together and they all sing the words to that song knowing they probably line up very differently politically and socially. You see the power of music,” Mr. Church declares. “If the world could do that more often we’d be a lot better off.”