Fifteen Favorites: The Eric Church Edition (feat. Marty Kurtz)

This will be one of the first few “Fifteen Favorites” to feel almost too predictable. When it comes to 2000s country music, there was always something about Eric Church’s music I just found more interesting and weirdly wonderful than his contemporaries – even the ones I enjoyed. And if there’s a song I remember fondly from my time growing up, it’s the oddball track known as “Smoke a Little Smoke,” which completely blasted out of my speakers in 2010. It may not be a “I was there from the beginning” kind of story, but what a time to jump onboard, am I right?

The Chief album, released the next year, was a special one for me – an album that saw me through moving away from my childhood home and entering my high school years. It’s fitting that we’re publishing this 10 years from the day it was released.

I’ve never known what to make of every one of his releases, mind you – The Outsiders era in particular was a wild time – but I can safely say Church is a defining artist of my childhood and even today. And now, I’m here to present my 15 favorite songs by him, and I won’t do it alone. I’ve invited my friend and Church aficionado, Marty Kurtz, on for his opinions and rankings as well. I should mention, however, that I’m personally opting not to include any songs from Heart & Soul for my own list, even if some would make it. I want that album to settle more with me and let time be the ultimate judge. Anyway, after hearing from Marty – who you can find writing at his own website – we’re going to get this started. Feel free to share your own favorites as we move along! – Zackary Kephart

Eric Church is my once-in-a-generation artist. Some people have Bruce Springsteen or Bob Seger in the rock world, and some have either George Strait, Alan Jackson, or Garth Brooks in the country realm, but Church has always been my guy. Partially because I think he’s a good mix of all the artists mentioned above. He rocks like Seger, tells a story like Springsteen, Strait, and Jackson, and has the stage presence and connection to his audience like Brooks. Nobody in music does or can do what Chief does on tour. While other artists in country music try to toe the line between mainstream success and an artistic sense, Church runs back and forth on that line and somehow manages to get a hit or two on radio while staying true to his musical vision. Oh, and all the while selling out arenas (and Nissan Stadium, in 2019). His music, while sometimes going off the rails a little bit sonically, has been solid throughout his 15-year career, and his live show is something you’ve never seen before. He has a catalog as deep as anybody else in Nashville, and trying to whittle that down to 15 tracks is not an easy thing to do. So I hope you enjoy (and don’t hate!) my picks. – Marty Kurtz

No. 15, “Desperate Man” (written by Eric Church and Ray Wylie Hubbard)

It’s weird. My original list didn’t feature any Desperate Man songs, and even if it had, I would have likely chosen “Monsters” instead, which even made my “Best of 2018” list. But I don’t know, even if I still feel like that album is one of his strangest and most uncomfortable listens that requires the right mood to even approach it, the title track? It’s grown on me immensely over the years, and was easily the new highlight upon that revisit. It’s a fitting statement for the album, though, complete with a warped, funky bass line that ramps up an excellent groove with weird-as-hell backing vocalists that complement the main theme of, well, desperation. And considering Church is throwing everything he has to the wall to make something stick here, it may not be his outright best song, but sometimes not having it all in control works for the better, too. – ZK

No. 15, “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” (written by Eric Church and Jeremy Spillman)

This is one of the first tracks to really bridge the gap between the hell-raising side of Church we all know and the more mature and nuanced version of the Chief we see now. In this mostly acoustic track, he ponders how he’s survived this long when he was a guy who likes “fast cars and shop grease” and attributes that survival to his wife. It’s a telling love song that showcases Church’s writing in a way he hadn’t up to that point in his career. – MK

No. 14, “Smoke a Little Smoke” (written by Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, and Driver Williams)

Oh, hey, it’s another wack-ass Church single that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does! On paper, that hook is flabby and the premise itself is overdone, but here, it’s a head-banging, hazed-out fun time that makes you feel like you’re there getting right with Church. That opening snaky acoustic groove puts in most of the work, but then the damn-near cacophonous, jarring electric axes erupt and make this feel just as wild as “Desperate Man” from before. It’s a literal high that never sacrifices accessibility for its aesthetic. Indeed, it’s arguably one of Church’s funnest tunes, even if it’s not quite his absolute best song about getting over a heartache. – ZK

No. 14, “Over When It’s Over” (written by Eric Church and Luke Laird)

This has always been one of my favorites from the Chief era. From the moment that drum kicks in, the song doesn’t really stop. There’s a certain pressure building up that allows the listener to really feel that anxiety of the break up the song is describing and then at the end finally allows them to breathe, because “it’s just over when it’s over.” The imagery is rock solid and the hook is strong. I’m actually really surprised this wasn’t a single choice instead of “Creepin’” or “Like Jesus Does.” – MK

No. 13, “What I Almost Was (written by Eric Church, Michael P. Heeney, and Casey Beathard)

A true story with the emotional pathos to connect with anyone who didn’t end up where they thought they would yet still can’t help but feel happy by how it all turned out. Sure, it’s one of those songs with a familiar concept that doesn’t always have a happy ending for everyone, but as Church walks through how he could have almost been a suit-and-tie man working a dead-end job and finds salvation in his one true passion for music, it’s a redemption that naturally feels easy to connect with and understand. More importantly, it’s a song that emphasizes how it’s never too late to turn things around, nor is it stupid to at least try and chase those dreams. Hey, you never know. – ZK

No. 13, “Hungover and Hard Up” (written by Eric Church and Luke Laird)

If “Over When It’s Over” is the before-the-break-up song, “Hungover and Hard Up” is the aftermath. This song lyrically paints the post-leaving side of a break up so well. It’s lines like “I’m tired of this see-saw Merry Go Round, so Mary you can go to hell” that really show off Church’s ability to find clever wordplay in his lyrics. It’s a song that doesn’t get enough credit and that he rarely plays in concert anymore, but is always a track that I come back to. – MK

No. 12, “Give Me Back My Hometown” (written by Eric Church and Luke Laird)

You know, it’s sometimes just the weirdest little production trick that will put a Church song over the top for me (what’s up, Jay Joyce?). Like Desperate Man, I’m not sure what to make of The Outsiders today, even if on concept and execution alone I prefer it to that album. I actually didn’t really originally care for this song alone off of its goofy premise of blaming an ex-lover for metaphorically stealing one’s hometown and their memories of the good times shared within it. But every time the drums and handclaps would kick in and the tension would accelerate off of that atmospheric high and Church’s frantic “yeahs” would give this more anthemic potency than expected, suddenly I got the feeling of being frustrated with someone for stealing the good parts of those memories. Perhaps a little ridiculous in concept and execution, but Church’s desperate urgency does the heavy lifting for a track with real muscle behind it. – ZK

No. 12, “Talledega” (written by Eric Church and Luke Laird)

Nostalgia is nothing new for Church to come back to time and time again, but every time he does he’s able to take a specific memory and make it universal. I’m not a racing fan in the slightest, but this song invokes some of my favorite memories roadtripping with friends and having an experience that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. “Most days in life don’t stand but life’s about those days that will” is just a killer line in a song that’s as much a reminder to make those future memories as it is reminiscing about the past. – MK

No. 11, “Two Pink Lines” (written by Eric Church and Victoria Shaw)

You know, going through this list has me realizing how great Eric Church is at setting a mood. And for a brief, glorious time in country music, this ode to hoping for a negative pregnancy test complete with that joyous blast of harmonica off of the hook stood alongside, you know, Rascal Flatts. It’s the sort of relentlessly catchy song with a taboo subject matter you’re not sure what to make of yet still can’t help but root for the characters in it anyway. Not quite as weird in execution so much as concept this time around, but still a frantically fun time anyway. – ZK

No. 11, “Where She Told Me to Go” (written by Eric Church and Casey Beathard)

I love when artists turn a phrase and really make something special out of it. Turning a phrase like “Go to hell” into a sad song about the narrator breaking up with someone and realizing he screwed up is just such a good concept for a song. He nails the images of a young man down and out where nothing’s going right for him as he’s trying to get her back. This is also probably Church’s most underrated track. It’s a deep, deep album cut he may play once on a tour … and that’s if you’re lucky. – MK

No. 10 (both lists), “Record Year” (written by Eric Church and Jeff Hyde)

This is the kind of song I’m surprised Church didn’t record sooner than he did, an ode to absorbing music to ease one’s mind and worries. I mean, same, dude. But digging a little deeper, something I’ve come to appreciate about “Record Year” over the years is not just that it’s about a love of music, but a love for the rediscovery of it, too. We tend to associate songs with past memories, and sometimes just tapping into that feeling of being young again or remembering just what it was you loved in the first place about a song or album can bring an unexplainable joy that’s simply cathartic. And off of the buzzier tones that echo that feeling of a vinyl record playing, this is a song that’s now old enough to evoke its own record year, and Church as the giddy music nerd is arguably him at his best. – ZK

“Record Year” is the easiest concept for a country song that I’m honestly surprised that it took until 2015 for somebody to come up with it. The idea is just right there. Even Church has said in an interview that he was shocked that nobody really put this idea to pen and paper before. The concept of going back and listening to old records after a break up isn’t a new idea. What is, though, is finding a renewed love of great music. How many times have you gone back to an album years later and just fell back in love with it? That’s what this song expresses. It also helps that Church delves a little deeper into the music catalog, citing artists like James Brown, New Grass Revival, and John Lee Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer”. – MK

No. 9, “Springsteen” (written by Eric Church, Ryan Tyndell, and Jeff Hyde)

Obvious big hit is obvious, I know, but it’s not wrong. It’s Church worshipping at the altar of an idol, tempered with poise by weaving in those Bruce Springsteen references in a story of young love that feels like more than just cheap name-dropping. If anything, it’s the simple, sweeping wistfulness that gives this track its fire, where the atmospheric guitar tones play off the lingering piano to show a huge swell of melody that’s always been an underrated element of this track. And considering how we all connect memories to music and sometimes just miss being young more than anything else … yeah, it’s a no-brainer as to why this connected the way it did. – ZK

No. 9, “Drowning Man” (written by Eric Church and Casey Beathard)

Like “Over When It’s Over,” I love a song with a good build-up, and “Drowning Man” takes the cake for that on his Desperate Man album. For a record that wasn’t an “easy” listen on the ears at all, this is one of the few tracks that sonically allows a groove to happen, evoking the same thump from Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls.” Church has always been a man of the blue collar, American-made worker, and this is a song dedicated to those folks who just want to drown the craziness of the world away. – MK

No. 8, “Creepin’” (written by Eric Church and Marv Green)

Considering what “Smoke a Little Smoke” did for Church’s career, it’s no surprise to hear his follow-up album open with a song opt for the same spirit as that track. And I’m back to highlighting the oddball production and instrumentation, from that rattlesnake opening that gives way to swampy acoustics which further give way to the trashing electric guitars on the chorus, complete with thumping percussion that adds an earned sinister swell to this mind-trip of trying to literally escape an old lover’s memory … with “bum-bums,” to boot. Suffice it to say, between that and the ridiculously good couplets, this song doesn’t have a great hook, it has great hooks, period. It’s a confident trip to Hell that never relents, and it’s awesome. – ZK

No. 8, “Those I’ve Loved” (written by Eric Church and Brett Beavers)

I love songs that have a really great story progression in them. This song is a tribute to all of those in Church’s camp that have helped him along the way. While he mourns his grandfather’s death and the drifting loss of a girlfriend that just didn’t work out, he explains that he wouldn’t be the man he is today without them. It’s a sweet song that ends with him saying, “It was never about trying to be some big star/for me, it’s always been about these songs”, a subtle nod (or even a thank you) to the fans that connect with his music. – MK

No. 7, “Where She Told Me to Go”

This is the warm, introspective side of Church that works just as well as his weirder tunes and doesn’t come out nearly as often as it should anymore; no one has ever accused Church of being too country. Yet this doesn’t feel like an anomaly in his discography. He handles heartache with ease, especially when he’s the one in the wrong here for letting his foolish pride end a good thing. It’s a song that lets its extended outro simmer with atmosphere against the faint touches of pedal steel and reverb and really feels like a character raising his white flag in defeat. I’m tempted to just end with “that hook,” but really, it’s the lonely scene Church paints along the way that strengthens it. – ZK

No. 7, “Jack Daniels” (written by Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, and Lynn Hutton)

Oh, boy. I’m not a drinker, but this track can surely relate to anybody that’s had a few too many once or twice. There’s a whole vibe to this song that I just love. I love the fact that Church paints a picture in my head of himself going up against some whiskey. I always thought this would have been a fantastic single choice off Chief, and I would have loved to see an animated music video for this one. This one has turned into one of his biggest concert songs as well, with him taking a shot (or two or three) of Jack Daniels with a bunch of fans. – MK

No. 6, “Mistress Named Music” (written by Eric Church and Casey Beathard)

What I love most about the Mr. Misunderstood album in general is how much it served as a needed artistic rebirth for Church – a way to find his inner muse again. And off of the slow-burning southern-gospel swell here comes one of Church’s best motifs, a feeling of being to born to lose his heart and struggle all the way to chase those crazy dreams. And when that phenomenal crescendo kicks in to turn this song’s skittering snares into a blazing electric glory, he lets it all run free. Granted, he also acknowledges that he’s grown up now and has to temper some of those expectations, but there’s still something satisfying about letting that muse out to play every now and again. And if it isn’t one of Church’s most absolutely joyful moments on record, I don’t know what is. – ZK

No. 6, “Livin’ Part of Life” (written by Eric Church, Liz Rose, and Walt Wilkins)

This is a jam and a half. If you’re somebody that’s in the middle of a cruddy work week, then this is the song for you. This is one of the most carefree songs in Church’s catalog, in which he basically says that he’s burnt out and going anywhere where he just wants to kick back and relax after all the time he’s spent grinding on the job. The energy in this song is so bouncy, almost whimsical, that you can’t help but sing loudly the last “sit baaaaaaaack and get hiiiiigh” before the outro takes you away. Normally, on Church’s records the last song is relatively serious (and usually a high point of the record), but the fun in this song makes me wanna take a three-week vacation out in the middle of nowhere. – MK

No. 5, “These Boots” (written by Eric Church and Michael P. Heeney)

I’d be remiss not to mention the live show appeal that’s carried this song through Church’s career, even despite not being a proper single. And really, I get it. You wouldn’t expect a song about cowboy boots to have any sort of punch or twist to it … that is, until Church frames them – and by extension, him – as the instigator behind his story of regret and lessons learned. Yes, he did this again with “Where She Told Me To Go,” but there’s such a cleverly sharp wit and subtlety to hiding the irony of his troubles behind a pair of boots, when the overall tempered feel says otherwise. Seriously, it’s the best that a fiddle has ever come cross in a Church song (not that there are many contenders for that, though, sadly), and it’s just such a wry way of addressing regret, even if the tough guy exterior portrayed throughout can’t even get him to directly address his own faults – nice touch there. – ZK

No. 5, “Holdin’ My Own” (written by Eric Church)

A consistent theme that shows up in Church’s music is his family, and this is one of his top two songs about them (more on that a little later). It’s a reflective and pensive take on how he views his life now, stating that while he loves the road and what he does, he loves his family more. It’s nice to see a song that shows personal growth, and in this one, he goes from the hell raiser in “How Bout You” to the husband in “Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” to the full family man who wants to be known as that rather than the music star. – MK

No. 4, “Sinners Like Me” (written by Eric Church and Jeremy Spillman)

Look, for as much as Church got too caught up in pushing the “outlaw” image in the early 2010s, this is an early single that resonates without even trying for tough guy appeal. Hell, it’s a song that builds its swell off of those beautiful Celtic flourishes in the melody and fiddle work and the damn “La-de-dahs” that may just end up being the most powerful part of the song! And the song itself, well, it’s one part tongue-in-cheek and one part wistful in its ultimate message of honoring a family legacy yet understanding the consequences of what can come from living too hard and too fast. If anything, it never outright glorifies anything except for the importance of family and what we leave behind, and I can’t think of anything more outlaw than that anyway. I’ll say right now that my top four is basically interchangeable, and this just may be Church’s most epic-sounding song. So to see it top out here means we’re in for something special ahead. – ZK

No. 4, “Crazyland” (written by Eric Church, Luke Laird, and Michael Heeney)

This song is by far and away the best track on Church’s Heart & Soul trilogy. I wasn’t sure whether I should include anything from this era on this list, since the albums have only technically been out for only a couple months, but this was one of the earlier tracks and has been around for about a year at this point, so it’s here. And boy, it is just the epitome of songwriting in my opinion. As I wrote for my Heart & Soul rankings, this is everything I want in an Eric Church song. Storytelling, heartfelt vocals (from both him and Joanna Cotten), and a great backstory in which he literally dreamt this song and wrote it immediately. I love all the characters Church creates through emotions like “Sad”, “All My Fault”, and “Blues.” I love the little details and how he describes them interacting with each other. Also, the twist at the end is something worth coming back for. I honestly didn’t get it until a few weeks after its release and that kind of songwriting is one of the many reasons this just had to make my top five. – MK

No. 3, “Those I’ve Loved”

Church is at his best when he’s the simple, humble guy with a lot of love to give. Spoiler alert: It’s what fuels my No. 1 song by him. And as someone who just lost his own grandfather this year, that first verse hits a little harder than it used to. But what’s always elevated “Those I’ve Loved” for me is Church’s love for everyone in his life on a more personal yet universal level, and how he channels it through his music. And despite the simple production, those spacious electric guitars breathing fire into the low-end really do add a potency to the words expressed here, especially when they’re allowed to simmer and give this an anthemic swell without even really trying for it. There may be just a few more Church songs I love more on a personal level, but this is without a doubt one of his most powerful entries. – ZK

Sinners like me
Eric Church’s 2006 debut album, Sinners Like Me, factors heavily into our respective top five choices.

No. 3, “These Boots”

This is probably the cult classic of Church’s discography. If you’ve ever seen him live, you know just how special of a song this one is. Everybody takes off a boot and holds it in the air for the entirety of the song while he takes breaks and signs some of the boots given to him. In this song, Chief sings the tale of his pre-record deal days through expressing where his old worn out boots have taken him. From taking tips in empty rooms to hiding from cops in Tupelo to walking away from the girl he loved. It’s one of the better examples of telling a story through an inanimate object and it’s amazing to me how a random album cut off his debut album is a song that is played at every single show and has just as much stage power as his biggest single, “Springsteen.” – MK

No. 2, “Lightning” (written by Eric Church)

This is Church’s best story song, hands down. Not a word is wasted – a man’s final hours sitting on death row that’s explored with such empathy for the every victim involved – including the one about to die – that it makes me realize I need to highlight another asset of Church’s writing: his knack for framing a scene. Yet against the brushing percussion, time is running short for the inmate, and all that’s left to do is to atone, if that’s even possible. The lack of real malicious intent and emphasis on empathy has always reminded me of Steve Earle’s “Billy Austin” in a great way, only, there’s no direct plea of sympathy for the inmate. And whether it matters anyway … well, that’s up to you. For me, it’s very nearly my favorite Church song. There’s just one that connects with me on a deeper level, and with Marty, too. – ZK

No. 2, “Sinners Like Me”

The title track to his debut album (and somehow kind of a throwaway single), Sinners Like Me is the catalyst for Church and his family. It’s also a catalyst for Church’s fans, affectionately called The Sinners. If you ask most Church fans what their favorite song is, they’ll point to this track. It’s a tale as old as time, the story of how we are a product of our own family, for the good and the bad. He goes through his family, explaining how rebellious everyone was and how his future (at the time) son will probably take after him, creating an extension into the “long line of sinners like me”. – MK

Before we get to our No. 1 picks, we want to share a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for us.

For me, in no particular order:

For Marty:

“What I Almost Was” and “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” are two of the most solid songs off his debut album. “Carolina” (especially live and with a piano intro) always hits a moment with this homesick anthem. “Springsteen” is obviously Church’s signature track (don’t hate me that I didn’t include it on my top 15), and “Dark Side” shows a darker side of Church that I wish we saw more often. “Mistress Named Music” is an autobiographical track for Church (and boy, do I love those medleys in concert), “Jukebox and a Bar” is straight up country and finally, “Lone Wolf” and “Heart on Fire” are two early standouts from the Heart & Soul era.

No. 1 (both lists), “Mr. Misunderstood” (written by Eric Church and Casey Beathard)

Sometimes there’s almost nothing left to say when you get to the top spot. I’ve discussed numerous times already how Church at his best is him as the humble music nerd, and this is the shining example of it. Here, the lone-wolf mentality comes in being the weird kid who likes alternative acts and listens to music on a deeper level. It’s why even despite the obvious Don McLean-esque tempo shifts and Wilco-esque melodies complete with shoutouts to Ray Wylie Hubbard and, naturally, Jeff Tweedy, the references feel earned. He’s not name-dropping for indie credibility but because he genuinely appreciates the art that in and of itself often gets misunderstood by the general public – even the people within who actually care. And even despite all of that, it rings as empathetic and anthemic because it caters to that teenage rock fantasy that everyone goes through – even if just briefly – and shows what happens when you take the hard road to see it through as more than just a fantasy. Even despite the music angle, Church understands any misunderstood kid trying to forge their own path. And if anything beyond all of that, even if the dreams die or never take off, Church makes it sound fun off the continuously ramped-up tempos to at least try for it. Now, as someone content with just writing about music, I connect with that first part a whole lot more, but I get that deep love for the art, Church, I really do. And while this list shifted considerably over the creation of it, it feels right calling this my favorite Church song. It’s very rare when one can directly relate to even just one part of a song, so to have something like this that understands how lot of misunderstood people operate … yeah, nothing else quite felt right. – ZK

“Mr. Misunderstood” is one of those songs of the ages for me. Not only is it a huge song in the history of Church’s music (being the lead single and title track from the iconic record) but there’s so many layers to this track, and that’s what keeps me coming back to it. Most people can relate to the topic at hand, being a misunderstood kid and not really fitting in anywhere. Even though my musical background didn’t consist of artists like Jeff Tweedy or Ray Wylie Hubbard, I still didn’t listen to what my friends did (I grew up on Bob Seger, oldies, and 2000s country) so I felt every word of this song. I even had my own Ohio version of “Alabama Hannah” when I was growing up. The tempo changes in this one remind me of Don McLean’s American Pie, and the sing-along chorus at the end is a cherry on top of this roller coaster of a track. – MK

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