In the earliest stages of 2014, as word about the contents of Eric Church's fourth studio album, "The Outsiders," began to filter beyond the circled wagons of Nashville's insular Music Row barricade, I began to receive correspondence from his fans buzzing about the record. Church is quite private, and the sparse information his management team does disseminate publicly is often mysterious, or just plain weird.
So for Church's fans any information is coveted information. Above all else, naturally, fans contacted me about "Talladega," a song he wrote personally and included on the album. That is noteworthy. He estimates at least 10 potential smash-hit songs didn't make the cut. Fans were intrigued by "Talladega" and couldn't wait to hear it and learn its message. I couldn't help but smile.
The first time I heard "Talladega" I was about as far from Talladega as American culture allows. I was in downtown Detroit. And, ironically, the first time I heard "Talladega," I was living it.
It was mid-August 2013, and I was seated on a couch inside a tour bus, parked in an alley alongside Ford Field. The blue cup in my hand was somehow empty again, and I was pretty well propped-up by the sink to my left, processing what I'd just witnessed.
Church had just completed an hourlong set in support of Kenny Chesney on the No Shoes Nation stadium tour. Church did what he does: put 50,000 people on his back and dared them to run through the gauntlet with him.
A Church show is like musical MMA: Me and you, boss, face to face in a bare-fisted bar brawl. There's a lot of raw, pent-up aggression in the air that swells until you swear the roof's going to blow off the joint. Church and his band are like an aerosol can on a bonfire.
It's been that way since the beginning. Because in the beginning nobody wanted to pay attention. So Church made them pay attention. He beat the hell out of himself onstage and he convulsed and he hollered and screamed at the people, and willed the people to engage. Still does. (It's not as hard these days.)
When the crowd is up for the challenge, it's intense: one man's passion colliding with the collective energy of a legion that yearns for something to believe in, find it in him, and repurpose that passion as fuel for hope or an eraser for their life's disenchanted blackboard. Detroit was up for the challenge. It wasn't the rowdiest show I've ever seen. But I was awestruck. No matter how many times I see it, I'm always awestruck.
As I sat on that bus and processed all of this, I thought about the last time I'd seen Church perform in Michigan. It was similar but different. Just like this weekend, the NASCAR circus was docked in Brooklyn, and Church was playing a June radio station festival in Martin -- a couple hours northwest of Michigan International Speedway -- at another track, US 131 Motorsports Park.
I blew out of MIS that day and hauled the mail to Martin. The crowd was rowdy and the show was tremendous. I returned to the house I rented on Devils Lake with other ESPN folks in the 4 o'clock hour. I woke for work 90 minutes later. That drive home was a doozy, but worth every second of lost sleep.
At that time Church's third album, "Chief," hadn't even been released yet, so only a fraction of the folks whom he now counts as fans were aware of his transcendent ability.
Back then, when I told people I was driving five or six hours round-trip in one afternoon to see my best friend play a one-hour set in the middle of nowhere, there was a whole lot of "Who?" responses. (They don't say that anymore.)
As I chuckled to myself about that and the vast distance -- I don't mean mileage -- between Ford Field and US 131 Motorsports Park, Church emerged from the back of the bus in mid-August 2013. He plugged in his iPhone and told me to listen up. He needed my opinion on something proprietary.
"Talladega" began to play and I closed my eyes. By the end of the first verse I had chills and tears and an overwhelming sense of pride. I remember opening my eyes and peeking over at Eric. His eyes were closed, too. And he was grinning because he knew I was grinning. I'll never forget that look.
I knew right then what the song would mean to the NASCAR community and to its fans, a sentiment that was validated in those first moments that the track list for the "The Outsiders" became public, and the fans were inquisitive and proud that Country Music Jesus wrote a song about them. About us. And as it turns out, about everyone.
Here's the story behind the song "Talladega":
It was July Fourth weekend in 2012, and Church sat in the front lounge of his tour bus, parked just outside Times-Union Center in Albany, N.Y. In an hour or so he would head to the back room and put on his brand of Superman cape -- navy blue mesh Von Dutch ball cap, Ray-Ban aviator shades, boots, dog tags -- and emerge transformed before walking inside to meet a line of fans that snaked through the corridor. That's Chief. But at the moment he was just Eric, seated at a marble-top table in sweatpants and a T-shirt, sipping on a glass of Jack Daniel's Single Barrel whiskey.
Luke Laird, one of Church's longtime songwriting partners, sat on the other side of the table. Across the aisle from them, the Sprint Cup race at Daytona flickered on the television as they volleyed song ideas back and forth.
By now the "Chief" album was a year old. It had rewritten Church's Nashville legacy and, some would argue, maybe even saved his career. It catapulted him into the country music elite and was a landmark chapter in a career-long statement to an industry that hates statements. (That chapter, by the way, is maybe the most important in the Saving Eric Church's Career autobiography.)
Country music labels prefer for artists to play nicely and follow the 16th Avenue assembly-line format. That format does not include releasing a song called "Smoke A Little Smoke." As Church and Laird sat on the bus that day in Albany, the signature song on "Chief" -- "Springsteen" -- had just reached No. 1 on the country radio chart. So Church was nearly a year away from even beginning the writing process for "The Outsiders."
But it was on that day, on that bus and in that moment that "Talladega," the cornerstone song of "The Outsiders," was penned.
"We were sitting there," Church said, "and the race was on, and they were showing people in the infield and they were showing fans, and we started talking about how, in iconic places like Daytona and Talladega and Bristol -- and maybe even Martinsville, because I went there with a couple of my buddies one time -- that that is the identity of the city.
"Daytona has some other things, but you get to places like Bristol and Talladega, worldwide that's what it's known for. I can go to Japan and say 'Talladega,' and they know what that is. So we sat there and started talking about now neat that was."
Then, Laird said, Church uttered the line that started it all.
"Eric said, 'Talladega. I want to write that,'" Laird explained. "Then Eric said that first line: 'It was the summer before the real world started ...'"
We've all lived that, the final stanza of life's unbridled freedom, devoid of real-life pressure and responsibility. Most of us recall those moments very sweetly. For me, though, those memories don't run in real time anymore. I can't see their true-life vividness. For me they live in a foggy filmstrip, as if they're recorded on 8-millimeter film in my mind. Those moments form the final frontier of our youthful innocence.
"You know, right then, you're experiencing something you're never going to experience again, and that it's going to be an experience that defines your life," Church told me. "When you look back and tell people stories about your life when you're 70 years old, and you pick five stories, this is one of the five.
"Everybody has those that you look back and go, 'Man, I'll never forget that one.' Hell, I have a bunch with you. If you can capture that in any kind of writing or music, you've got something everybody can attach to."
"Talladega" isn't a song about NASCAR. It is merely the setting for the message.
"I didn't want to write just another song. I didn't want it to be about racing," Church said. "I wanted it to be about the emotional attachment that people have to a memory that involved going to a race. It wasn't about the race. It was about being with the people there and having that escapism."
To this day Church experiences that special dynamic with "Springsteen." He wanted to recreate that nostalgia with "Talladega," only this time pertaining to a life event, rather than a melody as with "Springsteen."
"I love that we crafted it from the standpoint that it was right before real life started for these kids," Church said. "I've been there, when you know you're about to go, 'This is it, man.' That finality is coming. And you know you'll probably never be in that situation again in your whole life. That's where it started."
At that moment on the bus, Church put down the whiskey and picked up his guitar. Laird did, too. They knew they had a special idea, but in Nashville special ideas demand special treatment. It's not difficult to write a song about nostalgia. It is difficult to be authentic. Authenticity cannot be contrived.
The beauty of Talladega Superspeedway has always been its authenticity. I've long contended it is the most authentic stop in NASCAR, and for reasons far beyond racing. For me, Talladega provides NASCAR's ultimate sense of community.
"If you look at identities of places, tell me what Talladega's known for other than that?" Church said. "You can go to a few race car tracks like that, but you're not going to say that about Indianapolis. You're not going to say that about Daytona, really, or Charlotte. The one unique thing there was, when you say 'Talladega' they already know what you do there. You know it revolves around the race."
The syllables even managed to match the initial melody. Church and Laird debated whether the song should be called "Daytona" or "Bristol." But they kept coming back to "Talladega."
"It fit in there like it was supposed to be there," Church said. "And for me, some of my favorite moments from racing have revolved around the Talladega race. Still, Earnhardt coming from 9,000th to win it, that still to me is it -- that's the one.
"So if you talk about the heart of NASCAR, for me, there's two: Bristol and Talladega. And I'm from North Carolina. That's the two I think of when I think about the true heartbeat of NASCAR."
By the time Church walked onstage in Albany, "Talladega" was nearly complete. As soon as the show ended, he and Laird finished writing it. They recorded it immediately. All-in, it took just two hours to write. Its impact on "The Outsiders" record will last forever.
"It hits that sweet spot," said John Peets, Church's manager. "It's a cool song about reflecting on the best times in your life, without being patronizing. It's that magical thing that Eric does that relates to Tom T. Hall a little bit. This guy took off through the South and wrote about specific experiences, and you, as the listener, apply them to your life.
"This is a very specific tale of friends going to a race, but has the massive wide-reaching thing about, 'Yep, I went with my buddies wherever.' I've never been to Talladega, but I've been in that song. The sentiment is dead-on: early freedom, just getting your driver's license and heading out."
Laird, who to date has written 14 No. 1 songs for artists like Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton and Church, felt almost immediately that "Talladega" was special. ("When we finished the chorus, it gave me chills," he said.) But he didn't know special until he played the song for his wife.
"The song is called 'Talladega,' but it's so much bigger than that," he said. "I don't think my wife has ever been to a NASCAR race, but it made her feel something immediately. She felt connected to it. That's when I knew it could be bigger than just NASCAR fans. When we finished it, I felt like -- and I think Eric did, too -- that it was just a little bit better than some of the others."
Better and, for the balance of the record, necessary.
"We started to play the record with [the song] 'Outsiders,' and you roll through the sequence and he's pushing it at every turn. And it freaks everyone out," Peets laughed. "And when you hit 'Talladega' on that playback, I watched everybody's body language relax. [Universal Records Chairman Mike] Dungan, everyone. Everybody just kind of went, OK, we have common ground here.
"This song really does provide a link back to the very best of country music. The arrangement is what you expect. The story is one step better than most people write -- because it's Eric. Musically, it's right in the ballpark. So it gave this relief to Eric's main agenda, which is challenging the listener. That song allows you -- and maybe it's for both industry and the fans -- but it gives you a comfort thing that you're up for his challenge, that this record is not just a challenge for challenge's sake.
"It challenges the whole way through, but allows you this place to stand in comfort, like, 'Yeah, man, I can handle this ride. I can handle these new ideas, because I don't feel like I'm completely out of my element and my world.' Therefore, I think it's a really important song to have in there."
Church knows now, nearly two years later, that "Talladega" is a monster. His barometer? The same barometer that prompted him to release "Smoke A Little Smoke" and to keep slugging his way through rock 'n' roll bars five years ago when the future was murky. The barometer was the people.
Last month, Church was midway through the 11th concert in a 12-date European tour that stretched from Dublin, Ireland, to London to Amsterdam to Oslo, Norway. On that March evening he was in Stockholm, Sweden. A gentleman standing at the edge of the stage told him all he needed to know.
"Had a guy who stood there screaming 'Talladega!' all night until I played it," Church laughed. "He may not have known anything other than 'Talladega,' in English, at all. But that's when you go, 'Damn, we're in Sweden!' And you realize what a special song it is when it can make that kind of connection that far away."
He's seen that connection with two other songs in particular: "Smoke" and "Springsteen."
"Those are the two where they reacted like this one, where before anybody really had a chance to hear it very much they had already attached emotion to it and were sitting there screaming it during the show," he said.
"And what's funny, I didn't think Talladega would be received like it has. Even when we went to Europe, it was probably our best song off the new album -- even the stuff that's been out as singles, it's the one people reacted to the most and it's definitely been that way here [in the States]."
Church is very thankful and very aware that he is the rarest of stories, and on many levels. One of those levels is instant gratification. In very few occupations does a man know exactly where he stands in any given moment, right then and there. In very few occupations does a man witness his impact instantly.
"The interesting thing is 'Talladega' is having had that experience when I was young -- at least with 'Springsteen,' and probably with 'Talladega,' too," Church said. "And then to see people having that same experience right then, while you're standing up there singing about that experience, that's a cool thing as an artist. It's full circle.
"That's a cool emotion that only I really get to experience. That's the hard thing. I wish everybody could. I'm standing there knowing where I came from, and having had that myself. And I'm looking out at these people having that emotion as it happens. It's neat. It's one of those magic things you can't bottle up. Wish you could. There's certain songs in the set that tend to always make it happen. 'Springsteen' is one of those. So far 'Talladega' is one of those. We've only played it four or five times, but it's happened every single time.
"You just know that song, regardless of how the show is going, that song is going to pull them all the way in. It's special. It's rare. It's not something you could ever sit down and try to create. I can't just sit down and go, 'OK, how can I do this where that's the reaction?' It just has to be magic. And that song is magic."