I Know A Place

“I know a place where kings and paupers

Drink with the dreamers and the cheaters and the longers

And the dealers deal aces from a loaded stack of cards”

The first time I ever talked to Eric Church, we spent more time talking about the 1987 Carolina-Syracuse basketball game than anything we were actually supposed to be discussing. 

If you’re of a certain generation—and both of us are—you know that game. One of the most fun teams in Tar Heel basketball history, with Kenny Smith running the point and J.R. Reid dominating the interior and Dean Smith orchestrating everything on the sideline at the peak of his powers. Carolina went 14-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference that year, and after every single one of those games I pretended to be Kenny The Jet in my driveway.

The loss to Jim Boeheim’s Orangemen in the East Regional final still hurts today, and I am still irrationally bitter at Rony Seikaly.

Church felt the same way, as I discovered one day when we spent nearly an hour reliving great moments from that team and other Tar Heel squads. We discovered we have quite a bit in common—for example, we are both regular attendees at Eric Church shows—and have stayed in constant contact, including some late-night hour-long phone calls dissecting the latest Carolina basketball win (or loss).

The fact that he’s a winner of the Entertainer of the Year award doesn’t seem to matter when he starts discussing the Tar Heels. He still follows Carolina as closely as any of your most rabid Tar Heel fan friends, a fact that was cemented when he made the well-documented decision to postpone a concert to attend last year’s Final Four game against Duke with his family.

Much less reported upon was the fact that when Church attended ESPN’s College GameDay as the celebrity guest picker this season, he left Chapel Hill before the actual game was played. The reason was exactly the same as when he attended the game in New Orleans: he wanted to have an experience with his family. His son was playing in a basketball tournament back in Nashville, so the singer flew to Chapel Hill to appear on the show, then flew right back home to catch his son’s game, missing the Carolina-Duke game.

In other words, he’s the kind of Tar Heel fan you’d want to hang out with—the kind who prioritizes almost nothing over a big Carolina game…except his kid’s AAU basketball game.

Through a relationship that has built over the last decade, I’ve been fortunate to attend several of his shows. I admire the music—and, as I’ve told him, especially the writing of that music, because he’s a prolific writer of not just his own hits but those of others—but also appreciate the environment he’s created at his concerts. 

It’s not unusual to attend a Carolina game at which the person in the row behind you spends most of the game complaining about what didn’t happen—a shot that wasn’t made, a player who isn’t performing well, a coach who doesn’t call a timeout.

That never happens at a Church show. I’ve never heard anyone listen to him rip through “Knives of New Orleans” and then immediately say, “Well, it was better in Phoenix in 2017.” In the last decade of Church shows, I’ve met a man named Buckshot in Pittsburgh who was driving back overnight to West Virginia to work in a coal mine the next day but couldn’t miss singing every word live with Church that night. In Chicago, I met a couple from Wisconsin who nearly began sobbing when I handed them one of the trademark cups used in Church’s backstage vibe room.

The atmosphere is the same among his team and crew, all of whom are abundantly generous with their time and patient with newcomers. At rehearsal earlier this week, Church’s longtime manager John Peets asked if he could get me anything while he was running a different errand. Church consigliere Marshall Alexander stopped eating dinner to catch up. This is akin to Roy Williams pausing during an exhibition game to inquire if you’d like a cold Coca-Cola or Mack Brown halting a scrimmage to inquire about your kids. I promise you that anyone on Church’s crew has dozens of better things to do than talk to me. But unfailingly, they do it. It’s not that they’re better people than the ones from my daily life, because Carolina has some gems. But being around them makes me better.

“Everybody’s got their arms around

Everybody else’s shoulders

Guarding against the world outside

Like an army of Friday night soldiers”

I need that right now. I’ve always thought it would be fun to do some “postgame columns” after concerts, trying to bring some of that same behind the scenes access to Church fans that happens for Tar Heel fans after games. They all know the setlist. But whether they attended the show or followed it online, there are so many details that they miss.

This summer, I’m going to try to catalog those specifics. For roughly 25 dates of the upcoming Outsiders Revival tour, I’ll be on site with the tour, then writing a post-concert story that will be used in a variety of ways by Church’s team, including posting to his much-loved Church Choir web portal for his fan club. Hopefully, every story will be different, because every show is completely different, even when the core of songs remains the same. And based on what I saw in rehearsal, even that core of songs might occasionally look and sound a little different. As longtime fans know, Church is never afraid to make a change.

His songs are meaningful to so many people for so many different reasons. This summer is about the chance to find out why, and hopefully the post-concert columns (ideally, very similar to this one) help tell those stories, whether it’s what “Give Me Back My Hometown” means to a fan seeing it live for the first (or 20th) time or how “Russian Roulette” went from a page in his notebook to the stage.

Nothing is changing at the day job. We’ll still have Carolina Insider podcasts for you throughout the summer, and occasional GoHeels stories when the circumstances warrant. But on the weekends, I’ll be in Milwaukee or Toronto or Austin finding new stories. 

This has been a unique athletics year. College sports is changing, and in addition to the obvious differences, this year I lost faith in people I believed in and trusted. By the spring, I could feel myself being more cynical than I want to be. When I started this job 20 years ago, it was startling to me how many sportswriters were bitter, jaded individuals. They had fantastic jobs—they get paid to go to games! But it seemed to be a contest to see who could be more sarcastic in the press box.

I never wanted to have that approach. But in the last few months, I’ve felt closer to that outlook than felt comfortable to me. Going on tour with Church is a way to reboot that mindset. It’s not lost on me that both of my jobs are absurdly ridiculous. I get to walk into the Smith Center any time I want and watch the Tar Heels from some of the best seats in the arena. Eight-year-old Adam would not believe it.

And now I get an all access pass to a tour I’d be attending anyway, with the opportunity to interact with the musicians and the personnel and the fans who make that tour happen. Thirty-year-old Adam would not believe it.

This is the first of Church’s recent tours that doesn’t run through basketball season, making it perfect timing. And for a variety of reasons, right now feels like a time that it would be derelict to neglect this type of opportunity. This doesn’t feel like the right moment to pass up a potential once in a lifetime chance. So even if it means a hectic schedule during the usual slower time at work, or more travel at a time that is supposed to be for relaxing, this is the right chance to take. My wife and I recently checked the calendar and realized the upcoming week is the last time we’ll be at home for a full week until after Labor Day. It was a little daunting. After all, I’m not even sure that I know how to write about a concert instead of a game, and now I’ve committed to doing it two dozen times in in 21 different cities?

But then I told Eric Montross about the summer plan. “That,” he said, “sounds awesome.” That was enough endorsement to know it is the right thing to do. 

This summer is about a new experience, in new places, with new people. It’s about giving some of the most loyal fans in the music business a different perspective on an artist they’ve supported since he was playing tiny bars instead of giant stadiums. It’s also about getting back to the mindset that will help me be better at my “real” job once September arrives, about making the Outsiders Revival tour a bit of a personal revival.

And, yes, it’s about seeing some very warm summer nights through a different perspective—through Eric Church’s Ray-Bans.

“The battles wages tomorrow

But tonight you don’t give a damn

Wish you could stay the way I see you

Through my Ray-Bans”

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