Hailing from Lexington, Kentucky, an area famous for horses and bluegrass Christopher Alvin Stapleton also fulfils that other trope, he comes from a family of coal miners. He is the real deal and his prodigious output – he has well over 400 songs tagged up by the BMI Repertoire folks – can in part be traced to his blue-collar roots. His move to Nashville was however an academic one; he attended the lovely Vanderbilt University and would have become an engineer had he not hankered for home. Resuming studies in Kentucky Chris also enjoyed the communal lifestyle and started playing bluegrass with his new friends, concentrating on modernists like Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott while keeping a keen ear and eye on the masterly John Hartford and New Grass Revival. Pickin’ and singin’ turned more serious when his song writing skills were spotted and Stapleton was persuaded to revisit Nashville and do the Music Row thing. It worked. A publishing deal arrived and with pen and acoustic in hand our man was up and running.
Maintaining the high standard he’d set in early band The SteelDrivers, whose debut and self-titled disc was Grammy nominated, Chris came to the attention of Mercury Nashville but he didn’t jump into any deal and promised his answer when he’d had a family chat. The promising single, “What Are You Listening To” emerged in 2013 and captivated audiences who related to the heartfelt lyricism and gutsy delivery. The track was supposed to feature on an album that didn’t materialise but Chris simply got an old Jeep and did the road work that in part informs the concept of the album that did manifest itself, the wonderful Traveller. Those jaunts convinced Stapleton he was going to live up to his country ideals. “It comes from someone who has those country life experiences and it is made for people with the same life experiences, that’s what it is,” he says. “I think that’s the allure to it for anyone that listens to country music, whatever your definition of country music is. That’s what makes it authentic in any form. It comes from a real place for whoever is playing it and whoever is listening to it.”
With years of songs old and new to pick from Chris finally released Traveller in May 2015. Working alongside noted producer Dave Cobb he delivered a sound that mixes the old-school with Southern rock – a love from his time in The Jompson Brothers - covering the Charlie Daniels cut “Was It 26” and a song associated with George Jones, “Tennessee Whiskey”, that he also performed with Timberlake, a crack brass band and wife Morgane on BVs. The rest of the album is entirely original and the backing is exemplary. Featured players include Willie Nelson’s ever-present harmonica genius Mickey Raphael, Robby Turner on the pedal steel and rhythm section J.T. Cure and Derek Mixon. Michael Webb’s mellotron and other keys flesh out honest to goodness tracks like “Nobody to Blame”, “Might as Well Get Stoned” and the complex “The Devil Named Music”. If you love raw country then there’s plenty here to discover. The throwback “Outlaw State of Mind” is a firm favourite on stage but other emotional terrain is covered in “Parachute” and the centerpiece song “When the Stars Come Out”.
After such a long time as a work in progress it was highly gratifying to see Traveller go Platinum. Sales have zoomed past the million mark and Stapleton’s Vevo appearances are simply go-to sources. As a result Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and Stereogum all placed Traveller in their Best of 2015 lists with many noting Chris’s ability to integrate Allman Brothers rock, Texan dancehall and blues. Stapleton’s earthy baritone and his storytelling prowess have also been fingered. His lament to his late father, “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” seals it for us. Producer Cobb recalls the tension in the studio when Chris stepped up to deliver. To repeat – this is country with a deep soul.
Besides, you like the kind of country realism purveyed by Jason Isbell and John Fullbright then this travelling man is one to discover. He has already broken through and now we see him transforming into a major artist. The momentum is with him. Fire away, Mr. Stapleton. We’re listening up.
Like many country troubadours, Chris Stapleton cut his teeth as a songwriter in Nashville, churning out tunes that wound up hits in the hands of others. Kenny Chesney brought "Never Wanted Anything More" to number one and Darius Rucker had a hit with "Come Back Song," but those associations suggest Stapleton would toe a mainstream line when he recorded his 2015 debut, Traveller. This new release, however, suggests something rougher and rowdier -- an Eric Church without a metallic fixation or a Sturgill Simpson stripped of arty psychedelic affectations. Something closer to a Jamey Johnson, in other words, but where Johnson often seems weighed down by the mantle of a latter-day outlaw, Stapleton is rather lithe as he slides between all manners of southern styles. Some of this smoothness derives from Stapleton's supple singing. As the rare songwriter-for-hire who also has considerable performance chops, Stapleton is sensitive to the needs of an individual song, something that is evident when he's covering "Tennessee Whiskey" -- a Dean Dillon & Linda Hargrove tune popularized by George Jones and David Allan Coe in the early '80s -- lending the composition a welcome smolder, but the strength of Traveller lies in how he can similarly modulate the execution of his originals. He has a variety of songs here, too, casually switching gears between bluegrass waltz, Southern rockers, crunching blues, soulful slow-burners, and swaggering outlaw anthems -- every one of them belonging to a tradition, but none sounding musty due to Stapleton's casualness. Never once does he belabor his range, nor does he emphasize the sharply sculpted songs. Everything flows naturally, and that ease is so alluring upon the first spin of Traveller that it's not until repeated visits that the depth of the album becomes apparent.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine