Eric Church is contemporary mainstream country’s favorite self-styled renegade.
He fashions himself after the outlaw country legends of the ’70s and gives his platinum-selling albums titles like Mr. Misunderstood and The Outsiders, but his tender ballads and tendency to namecheck rock heroes like Bruce Springsteen and Jeff Tweedy have made him perhaps the most uncompromising Nashville star of his era.
Tonight and tomorrow, Church will bring his Double Down Tour to the Target Center. Each city he visits on this trek gets two concerts that each feature two sets, and he switches up the setlist dramatically from night to night. Earlier stops on this tour have featured left-field covers of the Meters and Captain Beefheart. But he also draws heavily from all six of his studio albums, and you may want a crash course in his catalog beyond the hits before you see the show.
Church moved to Nashville after college with the Appalachian twang of his North Carolina upbringing in his voice, and the song that earned him a record deal was the dark, evocative death row ballad, “Lightning.” His 2006 debut Sinners Like Me is the lowest-charting album of his career, a sleeper hit that eventually went gold, but it still looms large over his live repertoire with the fiery breakup anthem “Before She Does,” and “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” which in its studio recording features an appearance from its namesake, Merle Haggard.
Church had the good fortune to team up with rising producer Jay Joyce on his debut, and their careers soared together, with Joyce’s warm, organic ,but adventurous sound a perfect complement to Church’s wide ranging songbook. But their albums are as much about what they avoid as what they’re willing to try. “The first couple records we had some steel guitar,” Joyce told Rolling Stone for a 2018 cover story on Church, “Then we looked at each other like, ‘We fuckin’ hate steel guitar!’” When Joyce became one of the only country producers in recent memory to garner a Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical in 2015, it was largely for his work on Church’s The Outsiders.
While other country stars have stood by the traditional album rollout, Church followed Beyonce’s lead in 2015 with a “surprise” album, Mr. Misunderstood, and its rousing deep cut “Knives of New Orleans” has recently become a frequent concert opener. Last year’s Desperate Man was Church’s shortest and sparest album to date, and took the longest for him to make, as if he truly was desperate to find the words and chords that once came more easily. But the album feels all the more triumphant because of that, with funky uptempo moments like “Hangin’ Around” that should fit well in his hit-filled setlists.
Eric Church deep cuts playlist
Where: Target Center
When: 8 p.m. Fri. Feb. 8 & Sat. Feb. 9
Tickets: $39-$129; more info here