Looking across the Nashville landscape, it’s hard to find a singer who has embodied that philosophy more than Eric Church, a superstar who has obsessively talked about (and demonstrated) how his fans — known as the Church Choir — matter to him more than anything. So that’s why it was especially surprising when Church announced Tuesday that he was canceling his upcoming sold-out arena show on Saturday night at the AT&T Center in San Antonio — so he could attend North Carolina’s Final Four basketball game against Duke.
“This Saturday, my family and I are going to stand together to cheer on the Tar Heels as the team has made it to the Final Four. As a lifelong Carolina basketball fan, I’ve watched Carolina and Duke battle over the years but to have them matchup in the Final Four for the first time in history of the NCAA Tournament is any sports enthusiast’s dream,” he wrote in an email to his fans via Ticketmaster.
“This is also the most selfish thing I’ve ever asked the Choir to do: to give up your Saturday night plans with us so that I can have this moment with my family and sports community,” Church added. “However, it’s that same type of passion felt by the people who fill the seats at our concerts that makes us want to be part of a crowd at a game of this significance.” He ended with a quote from famed UNC announcer Woody Durham: “Go where you go and do what you do,” and added, “Thanks for letting me go here and be with the Tar Heels.”
It is, admittedly, one of the highest-stakes games in recent college basketball history: Not only is Duke-North Carolina the most-storied rivalry in the sport, but if North Carolina wins, that makes it the last game for Duke’s legendary Coach Mike Krzyzewski — and this is all after North Carolina defeated Duke a few weeks ago at Coach K’s final home game.
However, that probably does not matter to the thousands of people who bought tickets to Church’s show on Saturday, many of whom spent time on Twitter and Instagram on Tuesday and Wednesday slamming the singer for his decision: “The hoops we have jumped through to secure childcare, to drive 4+ hours to see you. To have a night of fun, to see an artist that we have literally bought every record from. This is bull.” “An entire weekend’s travel plans up in smoke. Keep treating your fans this way and you won’t have any left.” “I appreciate you wanting to experience the basketball game with your family but how about those of us who were coming to the concert with OUR family?” And many more.
Some were also appreciative of his candor, which is rare — other celebrities could have simply lied or come up with another excuse, perhaps cleverly hiding their attendance at the game. (A publicist for Church said he knew he wasn’t able to reschedule right away, so he wanted to let fans know as soon as possible about the cancellation.) But Church’s blunt and detailed explanation shows his unusual relationship with his fans, and is probably the only reason he won’t suffer much, if any, damage to his reputation from this move.
Church made waves early in his career when he was fired as an opener from the Rascal Flatts tour in 2006 for going over the allotted time limit for his set. Yet he ultimately blamed his dedication to the fans: “We played a little bit too loud, a little bit longer than we were supposed to. I was a new act and I came out there and people paid a lot of money for a ticket and I was going to give them a show,” he explained in an interview in 2011.
And the fans loved it. Church focused more on building a fiercely loyal following than adhering to standard Nashville traditions: He argued with his record label over everything from releasing the controversial “Smoke a Little Smoke” as a single ( “It’s your funeral,” his label head told him) to wearing a hat and his famous sunglasses on the cover of his third album, “Chief” ( “You can’t wear a hat because you have hair and you can’t wear sunglasses because you have pretty eyes,” the marketing team said).
But “Smoke a Little Smoke” became a huge hit and “Chief” went triple platinum, and eventually, his handlers relented: He knew his audience well enough that he was able to tell exactly what they wanted from them. He launched a passionate fight against ticket scalpers so that his fans could afford tickets to his shows; in 2015, he mailed copies of his new album “Mr. Misunderstood” to his fan club before it was officially released. Last year, he released a three-part album, “Heart & Soul,” and sent the middle record — just titled “&” — to the club as well.
“When we’re going to put out an album, the people we’re trying to get it in the hands of are the fans, but the fans are also the last people [who] have a chance at it,” Church said. “It goes to a label, then the press, then radio and critics — all these people weigh in and get a copy and then it’s the fans.”
A couple of years later, he was becoming famous for playing 3½-hour concerts, and his die-hard listeners were ecstatic.
“They would probably stay for five hours, because they’re not like other fans — especially country fans,” journalist Marissa R. Moss wrote in Nashville Scene on the eve of two sold-out concerts in Nashville at the time. “The camaraderie in the crowd, the fervent dedication, the way people in the audience respond to each song … are more like the rituals of the traveling rock cults associated with Phish or the Grateful Dead.”
So it has been fans, fans, fans all the time, including recent years, when he posed for a 2021 cover of Billboard receiving a coronavirus vaccine to encourage his audience to get shots too, so touring could resume safely. If there’s anyone who could get away with making a whole lot of them angry, it’s Church — and although it has the makings of a public relations mess, he’s built up enough goodwill that he’s likely to escape it.