Chris Stapleton is putting together one of those cool careers in Nashville that every artist envies. His work as a songwriter is both authentic and accessible. He’s found success among the underground and the mainstream.
Since moving to Music City a decade and a half ago from his native Kentucky, Stapleton has penned a handful of No. 1 hits, including Luke Bryan’s “Drink a Beer,” Kenny Chesney’s “Never Wanted More” and George Strait’s “Love’s Gonna Make It Alright.” He also spent three years as the lead singer of the lauded bluegrass outfit The SteelDrivers, and during his time with the band it was nominated for three Grammy Awards.
Now Stapleton is fully stepping into the spotlight with last month’s release of his debut solo album Traveller. While the sonically inclusive country rock record full of heartfelt introspective lyrics is certainly something to celebrate, it was initiated by darker times. In October of 2013 Stapleton’s father died, and his one-off single “What Are You Listening To” was falling off the charts.
“That was a pretty terrible month for me,” Stapleton says during a recent phone interview with C-Ville Weekly. “But in retrospect those things are all a part of life, and they get you to positive things, this record being one of them.”
To lift her husband’s spirits during his struggles, Stapleton’s wife Morgane bought him an old Jeep in Phoenix. The couple flew to Arizona and drove it back to Nashville.
On the road trip Stapleton wrote his new album’s title track, which moves with a dusty, windows-down groove. He also started thinking about some of the songs he’d written in the past that would work for his first solo release. Soon a full set came into focus.
“On that trip I wanted to think a lot about things my dad would’ve liked to have heard on a country record, and the things that I enjoyed as a kid,” Stapleton says.
With his father on his mind, Stapleton decided to include the poignant “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,” a front-porch tearjerker about watching a parent age. Stapleton wrote the song back in 2005 after visiting his dad and noticing him skip his lifelong ritual of saying grace before a meal.
With some definite heartache moments, Traveller also has many additional moods. Stapleton, who looks like a burly outlaw troubadour but comes across as kind and soft-spoken in conversation, sings with raspy power through a diverse range of styles, including the R&B he loved growing up. He turns “Tennessee Whiskey,” a song made popular by George Jones in the early ’80s, into a soulful slow jam, while “Sometimes I Cry” has classic blues delivery. There’s also the gritty roadhouse rock of “Parachute” and some cowpunk edge in “Might As Well Get Stoned.”
“I don’t ever want to put labels on anything,” Stapleton says of his sound. “It’s certainly going to be country because of who I am and where I grew up. I’m from Kentucky and my dad’s a coal miner. But it’s also going to be R&B and rock, because I listen to that stuff. Hopefully there’s some kind of thread that runs through it when you put all of those influences in a pot.”
Helping Stapleton give the album continuity was producer Dave Cobb, who’s been on a serious hot streak with his recent work on Jason Isbell’s Southeastern and Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
When it came time to record, Stapleton joined Cobb and his longtime rhythm section— bassist J.T. Cure and drummer Derek Mixon—at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A. With additional help from Waylon Jennings’ pedal steel player Robby Turner, Willie Nelson’s harmonica player Mickey Raphael, keyboardist Mike Webb and Morgane singing harmony, the album’s team would convene at the studio after typical business hours for sessions Stapleton describes as having “an off-the-clock, hanging out and playing music kind of vibe.”
The album in turn has the spontaneous vitality of a live show—the result of using familiar musicians in a laid-back atmosphere, all serving the many avenues of Stapleton’s extensive songbook.
While his work as a solo artist may be new to most people, Stapleton’s prolific output as a tunesmith is well known in the industry. He spent his first few years in Nashville writing constantly, at least three or four songs a day, and to date he’s had more than 150 songs cut by other artists, including Adele and Tim McGraw. Whether he’s writing for himself or someone else, he never alters the process.
“I don’t feel like I have to change,” Stapleton says. “You should always be trying to write the best song that you can at any given moment. I’m still trying to learn as much as I can about that process and what makes certain songs connect with people.”
Following the release of Traveller, which debuted at No. 2 on Billboard’s Country Album’s Chart, Stapleton is turning to the road. He just spent time opening arenas for Eric Church, and through the rest of the summer he’ll be playing festivals and headlining rock clubs, including the Jefferson Theater on June 20.