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5/21/24 residency show

In My Soul

I know you wonder if every night can truly be like this.

This was the 14th edition of Eric Church’s “To Beat the Devil” residency at Chief’s. And surely some of those have been average, right? It can’t be every night that people get stuck in the elevator and then meet Eric Church or a family makes a pilgrimage for their Church-loving wife and mother who lost her battle with cancer or a proud North Carolinian sits directly in the front row and lets out a loud “Woooooo!” at every mention of Granite Falls.

Here’s the thing, though: it really does happen that way every night.

We tried to have a normal evening. We started at Rodney Scott’s on the fifth floor. The burger here is sneaky good. Someone like Church, who has spent years combing Nashville to identify the town’s best burger, isn’t going to let an inferior product be served in a building bearing his name (watch out for the prime rib sandwich, too).

We went to the show. It was just going to be a standard night. A burger and some music. Thousands of people do this all over Nashville every single evening.

But, well, then I met Jessica Makowski, who had made the over eight-hour drive from Wisconsin with her mother, Deborah. Jessica started listening to Church in 2011, went to her first Church concert in 2016, and this would be her 23rd Church show with her mother…maybe.

That’s because for most of the last several months, Deborah had a ticket but Jessica didn’t. They’d both been shut out of the Church Choir presale, but Deborah had made a friend at the show last summer in Orange Beach who hooked her up with an extra.

“I told them I needed two because Jess was coming with me,” Deborah said.

“We go to every show together,” Jessica added.

“But they only had one,” Deborah said. “So I told her, ‘Come to Nashville with me and have faith.’”

Faith…plus some creative internet scavenging. Jessica made regular posts on various fan groups in search of one ticket for tonight’s show. Eventually, with just a couple days before the show, a hit—a fellow Church Choir member thought he was going to have one extra. The backup plan was that there was no backup plan.

“If it didn’t work out, I was going to sit downstairs at the bar and wait for my mom to come tell me about the show,” Jessica said.

But the Choir member, a complete stranger, came through. These tickets are nearly impossible to get. But with enough resourcefulness and dedication, they have a way of finding those who need them most. And so both made it inside the Neon Steeple on Tuesday night. Deborah had on the jeans she custom made, the ones that feature flags from every state where she has seen a Church show and patches from albums and tours she has seen.

Both agreed it was unlike any Eric Church show they had seen before. This particular Tuesday’s combination of Church being in the zone and an appreciative crowd might have been the best of the residency so far.

There was an audible “Wow” in the crowd after one of the new songs. “I just broke a sweat,” Church said after a more familiar tune.

Three songs in, Jessica had tears in her eyes.

“This is something my mom and I have in common,” she said. “My sister doesn’t love it like I do, my husband doesn’t love it like I do. But my mom and I get to have these experiences together and talk about them as the years go by. We love talking about things that happened at each show and looking back at them.”

And as she talked, one of those things was happening just a few seats over. When the residency shows end, there’s a line to get out as everyone gets their phones unlocked before leaving the no-phones venue. As he waited patiently, Josh Ahrns noticed that a security guard was eyeing him.

“I actually wondered,” Josh said, “if I was in trouble.”

He wasn’t. At least, not tonight.

Josh has had a challenging few years. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in November of 2021. For a healthy 34-year-old, the news made no sense.

Chemotherapy shrunk the cancer. Progress was being made. But a scan in January of 2023 confirmed the cancer had spread. It forced him back into the hospital, where he spent the better part of April. One thing kept him going:

“I had bought tickets to this show a couple months ago,” he said. “And the whole time I was in the hospital, I was like, ‘I’m going to that show.’ That was my goal. I needed that mentally. I knew that on May 21, I had somewhere I needed to be. Any little thing helps. My parents and I talk a lot about not letting the devil win. And this was my way of not letting the devil win.”

Word eventually reached Church about Ahrns’ commitment. The singer knew Ahrns was at Tuesday’s show along with Vanessa McCullough. “I want to meet them,” Church said.

Which is why Caleb the security guard was ominously approaching the couple after the show. “Eric wants to say hi,” he told them.

Yes, Eric Church. Even a few minutes after it happened, Josh was still virtually speechless. “I’m just shaking right now,” he said. He and Vanessa had talked with Eric and Katherine Church (“Hi, I’m Eric,” the singer had said by way of introduction) about their background in Ohio, about possible mutual acquaintances in Granite Falls, and about how Church’s music has helped Josh and Vanessa get through some very difficult months.

“Josh has been a bigger Eric Church fan than I was,” Vanessa says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, I like his songs.’ He kept telling me that I didn’t get it, that I didn’t have that connection. And walking out of here tonight, I think I get it.”

If she needs to understand, she should just talk to Jessica, who raved about the show. With 22 previous Church concerts, you know she knows what she’s talking about. She gestured at the tattoo on her forearm near her elbow, the one that includes her favorite lyric.

It reads, very simply, “Put some feel good in my soul.”

“That’s the best way to describe tonight,” she said. “This night put everything and more in my soul that I needed.”

Get More on the Record

Stained Glass Windows in Neon Steeple


Friday Night

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Friendly Shadows dueling pianos


Ups and Downs

A memorable Wednesday night at Chief’s included one of the best To Beat the Devil residency shows so far, plus two Nashville residents smoothly transitioning from stuck in an elevator to hanging out with Eric Church in the green room.

View from stage at Neon Steeple


Tar Heels

There were 389 people inside the Neon Steeple for Eric Church’s “To Beat the Devil” residency show at Chief’s on Tuesday night. It only seemed like approximately 387 of them were from the state of North Carolina, including two very proud fans in the first row who could picture every back road on the stories he told from home.