Of all his country music performances, there are a few in particular that Eric Church is quite fond of. One that he won’t soon forget is that of September 29, 2017, at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival.
He was the headliner for the first of what was a three-night showcase, filled with country music favorites like Jake Owen, Dierks Bentley and Sam Hunt.
Reminiscing on the lively crowd he stood before on Friday night, Church described the performance as the perfect ending to his season of touring.
“It was our last show of the year and I watched them hold American flags up during ‘How ‘Bout You,’” Church recalled. “I watched them put an American scarf around my neck during ‘Springsteen,’ they held records up when I played ‘Record Year,’ they held boots up when I played ‘These Boots.’ I was so moved by it, mainly because I looked at ‘em and went ‘This is my crowd. I’ve seen this crowd all year, they’re mine.’ They came from all over the country because it was our last show.”
That same crowd, those same people, are the fans who were ambushed and attacked from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino just two nights later.
It was only a few songs into country star Jason Aldean’s performance, when Stephen Paddock opened fire on the festival, killing at least 59, wounding 527 others, and instilling fear into more than 22,000 people.
A visibly heartbroken Eric Church reluctantly performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville on Wednesday night, just days after the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Those were his people.
From the stage, he relived something different he’d done during his performance of ‘Springsteen,’ on Friday night.
Feeding off the crowd’s energy and fun, Church actually jumped down off of the stage during the song, and walked through a row that split the crowd.
With fans on his left, and fans on his right, Church went all the way down both sides individually and shook as many hands as he could, thanking them for coming.
“And 48 hours later, in those places that I stood, was carnage. Those are my people. Those are my fans.”
Choking back tears, Church admits he didn’t want to be at the Opry on Wednesday night. Not out of fear, and not out of self-loathing, but out of heartache.
But his motivation came from a woman named Heather Melton.
Heather and her husband, Sonny, had traveled to Vegas from Tennessee to celebrate their wedding anniversary at the music festival.
Sonny died a hero, shielding Heather from the bullets.
Church saw an interview with Anderson Cooper on Tuesday, in which Heather sported a “Church Choir Tour T-Shirt.” She told the CNN reporter that Eric Church was “Sonny’s guy.” They had gone to the festival specifically to see him.
When she added that they had tickets for Church’s Grand Ole Opry show back home in Tennessee on Wednesday night, Church said he decided not to cancel the show. Their two seats sat empty, but he sang to Heather and Sonny.
Heather Gulish Melton
“And, I’m gonna tell you something,” Church said to the Opry crowd on Wednesday night. “The reason I’m here tonight is because of Heather Melton and her husband, Sonny, who died, and every person that was there. I’ll tell you something, I saw that crowd. I saw them with their hands in the air. I saw them with boots in the air. And what I saw, that moment in time that was frozen, there’s no amount of bullets that can take away. None.”
Church says something broke inside of him on Sunday night when the shooting happened. He felt broken for his people.
“And the only way I’ve ever fixed anything that’s been broken in me is with music,” he said. “So I wrote a song.”
In mourning the victims of the Las Vegas shooting, Church wrote a song called “Why Not Me,” in which he cries out to God, questioning things he can’t understand.
“The Lord is my refuge and fortress, my God with whom I trust. But I’ll never know why the wicked gets to prey on the best of us.”
With a line that sounds like it was written specifically in memory of Sonny, Church sang, “Why you from Tennessee did life capture, and me from Tennessee get away.”
His words were raw, and rang true of the things country music was founded on—God, heartbreak and vulnerability.