Eric Church’s New Album ‘Heart’ & Upcoming Tour Serve as Overdue Tribute to Late Crew Member, Marc Earp

by Marty Smith
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When Eric Church returns to the stage for the 2021 summer festival circuit—a set of preliminary warmup sprints for the 55-date arena marathon he’ll run from Lexington in September to Manhattan in May—he will stalk the floor like a caged lion, steely-eyed behind the Ray-Bans, starving from a year full of empty fields and no prey on the horizon.

For Church, the prey is you. And he’s damn hungry. Because without something to attack and devour, a lion ain’t a lion.

He’ll pound Jack like water and beat the country music bejesus out of himself so aggressively it voodoos guys like me into such a whiskey-fueled frenzy, we somehow end up beating the hell out of ourselves, too. It’s weird. But anybody who’s seen his show has experienced the vortex of his unbridled passion. It wills us license to unlock and unleash emotions we typically don’t. Or won’t.

Uninhibited is a rare experience these days. It’s liberating. The energy exchange between Eric Church and Choir has no equal in the industry—certainly not in Nashville. It’s spiritual. Hell, it is Church, after all.

And when we do gather again, artist and band and fans and venues alike will feel an adrenalized sense of belonging, for which we desperately yearn following 15 months of uncertainty, loss, division, and fleeting hope.

But mixed with the joy of rebirth and reunion, Eric Church and his extended crew will carry that sense of loss. One of their brothers is gone.

Marc ‘Earpy’ Earp

Marc Earp, Church’s production manager and monitor engineer since 2010, will not be there. Earp, or “Earpy” to anyone who ever met him, died on April 27, 2020, from a pulmonary embolism in his left lung. This, after months of chemotherapy to battle Stage 4 colon cancer, ultimately spread to multiple organs.

He was 54 years old. And he was a light in the world.

“Marc Earp was the kind of guy you go into ‘battle’ fearlessly with—and with him you always expected the outcome to be nothing short of awesome,” says Michael Joe Sagraves, Church’s personal guitar tech from the club days. “I will miss my friend and brother. Thank you, Earpy. You set the tone for the rest of us.”

Due to gathering restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, Eric Church’s crew and extended family never got to properly honor their brother. They will finally, formally, do so on the one-year anniversary of his passing.

“He was my best friend for 30 years,” said Church’s tour manager, Todd Bunch. “He was just such a monster personality. For me and my wife, we’ll never get over it. I’ve lost my mother and my father, and when I lost him, I don’t think I’ve ever had a death affect me like that. I’m still struggling with it.”

Three Wheel Drive

Earp, Sagraves and Sambo Coats—Church’s stage manager since 2011—were the three amigos of Church’s road crew. They called themselves Three Wheel Drive. They’re a bunch of knuckleheads (trust me on this), but individually, and collectively, they embody the fiercest brand of Church’s most-desired trait from his troops: loyalty.

“Over the past decade, we’ve been to both sides of the world together,” Coats said via handwritten letter, no less, pencil on notebook paper. “We loved almost every second of it. We fought hard, but we loved harder. No matter what, Earpy always had your back. He was loyal like that. Until we work that big load-in in the sky together—love you, brother.”

“Working side by side with him for 10-plus years, touring the world with Eric Church, we became very close,” Sagraves added. “Some days were difficult, as is the norm in the touring world. And some days were downright fun. But you’d never know the difference with Earpy. He kept it entertaining, always.”

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Three Wheel Drive: (L-R) Sambo Coats, Marc Earp, Michael Joe Sagraves

Earpy the Artist: Eric Church’s Demand for Excellence

For his friends, Earpy’s legacy is multilayered: equal parts confidant, patriot, prankster, motivational speaker, comedian and family man. His influence is everlasting, so impactful that Eric Church dedicated his new album, Heart, to Earpy’s memory. He wrote: I dedicate this album to Marc Earp—the very heart of our organization. His heartbeat can never be replaced and now will live on in the rhythm of ours.

Earpy’s laugh was an earthquake. His legendary shoulder massages were a great comfort when the road sometimes got rough. He deserves a bust in the middle finger hall of fame.

“He mastered the art of the bird! And he was damn proud of it!” Coats said, laughing. (In fact, when remembering Earpy on social media, Coats, and several other members of Church’s crew, apologized for the abundance of extended digits in the photos. Earpy would find that hysterical.).

Above all, he had a keen, common sense perspective on keeping the main thing, the main thing. Love each other. Never be afraid to laugh—especially at yourself. He was funny as hell, a walking juxtaposition between Eric Church’s company-wide demand for personal excellence and the understanding that, hell, boys, it’s entertainment, not brain surgery. It’s a shared philosophy that permeates Church’s entire team: We’re the best in the world. Act like it. Operate like it. But we’re only here for a little while, so above all else, we’re family.

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Sambo Coats (left) and Earpy fly the bird.

Welcome to the Road

“I loved that dude from the very first day I met him,” said production manager Brandon Schneeberger. “My first tour with EC was in 2012, and first time meeting Earpy, I saw this big, long-haired, rock ’n roll roadie production manager, and I was terrified. I was young in the game and didn’t want to make an ass of myself.

“Then, when I first go to shake his hand, he pulls me in for a hug and says, ‘I’m Earpy, welcome to the team.’ And it was from there I saw the gentle giant for what he truly was—the most kindhearted, genuine, caring person I’ve ever met in my entire life. He loved to laugh and have a good time, but when it time came to work he flipped a switch. All business.”

Even with a holstered bottle of Crown, Earpy was all business when the show started.

The Eric Church ‘Road Family’

That’s one crucial aspect of Eric Church’s brilliance you’ll rarely read about. Along with his manager, John Peets, his brilliant wife, Katherine, and Bunch, his road manager, he methodically built a road family, not just a road crew. That was the deal Church and Bunch shook hands on when they joined forces 15 years ago.

“I said to him, make me a promise: One thing I’ve always dreamed of is creating a touring atmosphere that is honest, loyal, and fun,” Bunch said. “You make it big and let me control who comes in and outta here. It’s not always easy. But we’ve built the ultimate f***ing touring organization out there on the road. What we have is an anomaly. It is completely unheard of.”

Bunch chased Earp for years. He’d tell his friend that this Church guy was raging like a bull, and the people loved it. But Earp was fiercely loyal to his previous boss, Tracy Byrd. Then, one morning in Oxford, Mississippi, Bunch took a long drawl off a cigarette, and his phone rang. Earpy was ready.

“He said, ‘I’m gonna go out with Tracy Lawrence for a few shows, but if you have anything, I’d love to come on,'” Bunch said. “I said, ‘Holy shit, how fast can you get to an airplane?’ He came on, and it was like a dream.”

The Missing Borderline Piece in Eric Church’s ‘Thousand-Piece Puzzle’

If Eric is the centerpiece of the operation’s thousand-piece puzzle, Earpy was one of those borderline pieces that helped bring clarity to the entire picture. And now that borderline piece is gone.

“After a year of having it on my mind, I’m still struggling with replacing him,” Bunch said. “We talked every single day. And we were a team. He was production manager, so he was second in command below me. We just clicked. I never had to worry about him, and he never had to worry about me. You can’t replace that. I’ll never be able to replace him. It’s gonna change the dynamic of everything we do out there [on the road]. It just is.”

Earp was a compass for all 80-plus members of Eric Church’s crew.

“I learned so much from Earpy, not only as far as a touring guy, but more importantly as a human, friend and brother,” Schneeberger said. “He truly is, in my opinion, the epitome of what EC wants in his corner working for him—works his ass off and gets the job done, but also is a the most genuine human being. Rare breed.”

“Earpy was the kind of guy that, no matter how stressful or contentious the situation, he always wanted to make sure nobody felt bad,” said Ben Rigby, who worked alongside Earpy every night for nine years as a monitor engineer. “He’d always say, ‘Don’t be a dick.'”

Put Up or Shut Up

Earp’s first show ever with Church was March 17, 2010, at the Orpheum Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin. It was the middle of an extensive theatre tour, and the first show in a five-day run. There was no rehearsal and no time to acclimate to the team or to the equipment. Put up or shut up.

“He got thrown in to run the monitors for Eric and the band with zero preparation,” said Marshall Alexander, Church’s longtime assistant. “I was selling merch at the time and helping wire the stage, and I remember watching Earpy handle the pressure with ease. He just aced it. He rose to the occasion. I’ll never forget his calmness under pressure, and his ability to get the job done well—always with a smile on his face.”

That smile was one of those smiles that would change the course of a day. For 12 years, every Church show I attended included several distinct stops, one of which was underneath the stage in the monitor bay. That was Earpy’s office. So every show, about midway through the set, I’d wander over that way, answer a series of questions by security as to who the hell I was and what the hell I was doing there, point at Earpy’s lair, nod, and simply walk on in. The security guards would be flummoxed, but I had shots to take.

Earpy’s Way: Shots Tall Enough to Kill a Moose

Behind the curtain, Earpy would be working, his back to the entrance. He faced the stage, so to speak, punching buttons and carrying on. I don’t know what the hell all those buttons do, but there were a million of them. It was like Picasso’s canvas for him.

He created art every night. I’d high-give Rigby and grab Earpy around the shoulders. He’d turn, look at me only with his left eye (his right eye was always on the board), throw his head back, laugh like a hyena, and point at the handle of Crown Royal resting on the scaffolding above him. Ben would grab the bottle and three red cups, pour three shots tall enough to kill a moose and dole ’em out. We’d tap cups, holler “I love ya!” and
put ’em down.

I always felt so welcome. That was Earpy’s way.

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(L-R) Marty Smith, Michael Todd Stembridge, Marc Earp, Ben Rigby

The Caring Prankster

“Marc was a man, a friend, a brother, whom I grew to love greatly for many reasons over the years we were friends,” said Michael Todd Stembridge, Church’s lead set carpenter since 2012. “He was strong, independent, decisive, fiercely loyal, faithful, and vastly knowledgeable, of admirable character. And if I had to pinpoint one overreaching quality, he was caring.”

He was also a world class prank artist. Alexander was the recipient of some of Earpy’s best work. Like the times Earpy would sneak into the production office and tie the sleeves of Marshall’s hoodies in knots. Once, at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Earpy hid Marshall’s skateboard. This was not unorthodox. Only this time he couldn’t find it.

Marshall looked everywhere for that damn thing—in road cases, under the stands, behind equipment. He checked everywhere Earpy had hidden it in the past. But this time, it was nowhere to be found. As Marshall walked back to the production office, shaking his head in defeat, there was Earpy, chest puffed out, shit-eatin’ grin. He glanced upwards. Marshall looked up. Nothing.

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Marshall Alexander (left) and Earpy

Earpy, more demonstrative this time, nodded upwards again. And there it was, 20 feet in the air, hanging from a steel beam. But that’s not the prank. The rope holding Marshall’s skateboard was tied to a nearby set of bleachers, off to the side of a giant storage hallway. Earpy painstakingly made certain the end of the rope was tied seven-and-a-half-feet high, so when Marshall untied the rope, his arms fell just short of being able to reach the skateboard. Brilliant.

“Of course, this brought an Earpy burst of laughter,” Alexander said. “His plan had played out to perfection.”

Finest Work…Or More of an Obsession

His greatest work involved the Rubik’s Cube.

For a time, Marshall was obsessed with solving the Rubik’s Cube puzzle. He carried it everywhere to pass the time on long bus rides or airport layovers. He’d gotten really good at it, and could typically solve it within five minutes.

But one day it stymied him. He twisted and turned the colored cubes to the brink of completion, but time and again the final step did not work. So Marshall would start all over, and methodically go step-by-step through the process of aligning each row and then each corner.

It never would work. And there, over in the corner sat Earpy, laughing to the point of tears. He had secretly stolen Marshall’s Rubik’s Cube, taken it to his work station, meticulously removed one of the red square stickers and replaced it with a perfectly-measured piece of white electrical tape, throwing off the entire puzzle and thereby rendering it impossible to solve.

“That’s the Earpy I grew to love so much,” Alexander continued. “That’s the Earpy I will always remember. And that’s the Earpy that has taught me not to take things too seriously. Over several years, hundreds of shows and thousands of miles, we formed a very close bond. He was like a big brother to me. I knew he always had my back, and I always had his.”

Longer on Heart

Earp was diagnosed with cancer following the final show of Eric Church’s Double Down Tour in Sacramento, California, during the week of Thanksgiving 2019. Shortly after, Stembridge began accompanying him to bi-weekly chemotherapy treatments at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville. As many cancer patients can attest, the waves of emotion during the journey can shift with the wind.

But Stembridge says Earp never let doubt, anger, or fear creep in.

“Never was there the first cross, ungrateful, or selfish phrase, nor even a hint of a gloomy outlook,” Stembridge said. “Every visit, the operable phrase was ‘What’s next to accomplish?'”

Stembridge said as Earp got sicker, he began fielding apologetic calls regarding his condition. Earp would listen, and almost invariably console those calling to console him.

“Constantly, he reassured friends that the medicine, the routines, but most of all the prayers were working, and he was getting better. Which is true,” Stembridge continued. “His cancer count started close to 4,300, and at his last visit was at 285 exactly. He was eight weeks from a break and reassessment of his treatment. Marc’s brilliant oncologist, Dr. Kristen Ciombor, and her staff, told me they just knew he was gonna ring the bell one
day.”

The Journal

Earp kept an extensive journal of his cancer journey, in which Stembridge said he noted names and information about each nurse who treated him in the infusion lab. Upon each subsequent visit—always the first of the day, 9 a.m. sharp—Earp would stop various nurses and staff as they made their rounds, ask about their day, crack a joke, and infuse them with joy. More than anyone else, he appreciated Dr. Ciombor. He made it his mission to crack her up before she ever had the opportunity to ask anything about him.

“Marc affected people positively and motivationally,” Stembridge said. “There are far fewer people in this world than needed with that quality. I could go on, but the care and compassion he displayed was immeasurable to brighten those people’s days—when he was the one needing their care. But, that was him.”

When Earpy died, Dr. Ciombor’s assistant received a page. She was in shock, and Stembridge said she openly wept when delivering the news to the doctor.

“That’s the effect my friend, mentor, brother had on people,” Stembridge said. “Even ones he did not know well. In the end, Marc Alan Earp’s example should spur us all to better our fellow man. And remember, just like he was: we should all be longer on heart than we are on time.”

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The Crew: (L-R) Michael Joe Sagraves, Marc Earp, Todd Bunch, Michael Todd Stembridge, Brandon Schneeberger, Ben Rigby
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