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5/7/24 residency show

Tar Heels

There were 389 people inside the Neon Steeple on Tuesday night. It only seemed like approximately 387 of them were from the state of North Carolina.

The man on stage was, of course. It was the seventh night of Eric Church’s “To Beat the Devil” residency. Just like every other show in this grouping, it was sold out. Stand outside of Chief’s for any length of time on a residency night and it’s very likely you’ll be asked if you have an extra ticket.

But admission doesn’t work like that here. These tickets went only to the diehards, only to the Church Choir members who braved a presale process that was fraught with tension as their fingers hovered over the keyboard trying to secure the precious tickets.

“I had two tickets in my cart,” a longtime fan named Erin explained on Tuesday night. “Then the website had some issues, and they were gone. At that point, somehow, it ended up that there were two tickets left available.”

Those two tickets, inexplicably, were on the very front row. Erin couldn’t quite believe this. Front row? She checked the price…thought about it for just a second. Like many Choir members, she has a credit card just for concerts. This would put a major dent in it. This was real money that would take real hours to earn.

The stage at Neon Steeple

But she knew there was no choice. She had to do it. Which explains how she and her son came to be sitting 36 inches from Eric Church on Tuesday night, the exact distance from his seat to the front row, center stage seats at Chief’s. Thirty years ago, she took him to his first concert. Now they were celebrating the anniversary of that show with the same artist they’ve seen in concert close to a dozen times each.

That put them in a prime spot to cheer loudly when Church mentioned Boone, North Carolina, the location of his alma mater, Appalachian State. That also happens to be Erin’s son’s alma mater (he’s a 2011 grad).

So they knew. When Church talked about driving down Highway 268, they could picture it immediately and nod knowingly. Sure, yes. Highway 268—Lenoir to Wilkesboro and beyond.

This was a night at Chief’s when there seemed to be someone from every single one of those towns in attendance. An hour before the show, I walked through the venue wearing an Angus Barn t-shirt, which proudly noted its location in Raleigh, North Carolina. So I know that the governor of Tennessee, Bill Lee, was at Tuesday night’s show. But so were Choir members from Wake Forest, Roxboro, Lexington and Chapel Hill, all of whom I met in the span of just a few minutes.

He belongs to all 50 states and beyond, and we know that. But there’s still a special bond among the North Carolina fans, a Choir within the Choir. The natives saw him at Coyote Joe’s or sitting on the grass at Walnut Creek when he was the opener for the opener (the headliner was Brad Paisley, the opener was Sara Evans, and the “other guy” was Eric Church).

And yes, as so often happens when any amount of North Carolina natives are together in a small room, there was some basketball talk on Tuesday. There was even—and this might be more of a rarity at an Eric Church show than him covering “Friends in Low Places”—a comment that came pretty close to a compliment about Duke basketball. That’s when you know stuff is getting weird.

With so many North Carolinians in the crowd, he of course had to mention the release of the “Carolina” album in 2009. It was greeted with raucous applause, including in the front row, where Erin still calls it her favorite Eric Church album ever.

“Yeah,” he said from the stage, almost taken aback by the raucous response. “You love it now. But where were you then?”

Then he caught himself. There were his people. “OK,” he immediately corrected himself. “You were there. But where were your friends and family?”

He’ll be back on the Neon Steeple stage on Wednesday night. There will be someone different in those front row seats. They might be louder or younger or older.

But they can’t be prouder.

“I’ve never spent this much on concert tickets,” Erin said. “But I can’t explain how special this was. And I would do it again tomorrow night, and the next night, and the next night.”