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How Eric Church Pulled Off His Striking ACM Awards Performance

He had to convince Johnny Cash's estate to let him use "Ragged Old Flag."

Written by Chris Parton
How Eric Church Pulled Off His Striking ACM Awards Performance
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - SEPTEMBER 14: Eric Church performs onstage during the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards at the Grand Ole Opry on September 14, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. The ACM Awards airs on September 16, 2020 with some live and some prerecorded segments. (Photo by Jason Kempin/ACMA2020/Getty Images for ACM)

Eric Church provided one of the most moving performances of the night at the 55th ACM Awards, fusing his own tough-talking current single with piece of Johnny Cash history. But it almost never happened.

According to ACM Awards executive producer, RAC Clark, who was interviewed on the subject by Country Aircheck, Church had to get creative in order to use a piece of Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag.” In the show, he used the track’s resolute patriotism as a counterpoint to his own “Stick That In Your Country Song,” a tune about the gritty reality of modern life. But the agents of Cash’s estate were not inclined to let the song be used.

“As we got into it, we found the Cash estate and publishers are very protective,” Clark explains. “No matter how much talking I did trying to get it cleared, it was a corporate wall.”

In a last ditch effort, Church personally wrote a passionate letter to two of Cash’s children — Rosanne and John Carter Cash — both of whom are artists themselves. We’ll likely never know what he said, but his appeal must have convinced the family of his pure intentions, because clearance was finally granted.

“I’m never going to share that letter, but it’s the reason that performance aired,” Clark said. “His passion about what he wanted to say and why allowed them to entrust him with their father’s legacy. … “

Eric Church and company found a spoken-word recitation of the song, and just before he started into his own single, The Man In Black’s voice played on. Church strummed his acoustic guitar gently as the story unfolded, one of toughness in hard times and pride in the things that withstand adversity, no matter how “ragged” they look, and the effect was undeniable. It made for a poignant moment in light of the country’s current struggles, and an obvious highlight of a special night.

“There was a lot of sweat equity by a lot of people. Part of my job is to bring these things to life, but this was Eric’s vision,” Clark says. “He pushed it over the top, and boy, did he deliver.”