Chris Stapleton has just released his debut album, Traveller, at the age of 37. His age is noteworthy for a couple reasons. When most musicians are in their late 30's, they start thinking about a greatest hits compilation. Also, if you listen to Traveller, Stapleton sounds decades older than his age.
His phenomenally powerful voice sounds weathered and worn, like a Steve Winwood or George Michael type who can absolutely wreck a vocal track. How his talent has been hidden from our ears for so long is beyond me, but better late than never.
But to say we haven't heard his music before would be disingenuous. He's written a good amount of hits, including Kenny Chesney's "Never Wanted Nothing More", Luke Bryan's "Drink a Beer" and Thomas Rhett's "Crash and Burn" -- he sang background vocals on both Bryan's and Rhett's cuts. Stapleton also penned songs for the likes of Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley and Adele.
When Stapleton wasn't writing tunes for big names, he led a band called the SteelDrivers from 2008-2010, and they grabbed a few bluegrass Grammy nods with Stapleton at the helm. But a man of his talent needs a full LP to get his point across, and at long last, Traveller's 14 tracks deliver.
The album began when Stapleton's wife and collaborator Morgane bought the couple a vintage Jeep Cherokee, which naturally led to a cross-country road trip. During that span of time, Traveller's songs came to life, and it sure sounds like it.
The opening titular track is a sunset over the flat horizon of the flyover states; "Parachute" is a breath of fresh air in the Celtic-influenced bluegrass of the Tennessee mountains; and "Nobody To Blame" is a hardened cowpoke riding through the Texan desert. Stapleton's career has spanned the same map Traveller was inspired by. Traveller may be his first album, but the ideas behind it have clearly been simmering for a long while.
Traveller is old-fashioned in sound but forward leaning in spirit.
Many of the recent country records that fly in the face of top 40 share similarities in their themes, their sounds and even their producer. Dave Cobb is becoming the go-to producer for country and Americana artists who prefer a spit-shined sound to the shoe polish glaze of country radio. Cobb's recent work includes albums from Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, and he can now add Stapleton's harmonica-heavy outlaw, minor key sound to that list.
Today's country tends to be caught up in partying and drowning sorrows. There's nothing wrong with that, obviously, but students of country's history usually have to dig deeper. Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen, Jamey Johnson and Stapleton -- artists who're used to paying their dues by writing for others -- all hover around the edge of mainstream popularity, but they kind of like it that way.
Like his peers, Stapleton sings about years he can't remember ("Was It 26"), guilt and shame at a failed marriage ("Nobody To Blame", "Whiskey And You"), religious struggles ("Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore"), and the one thing that keeps bringing him back ("The Devil Named Music"). Songs like these, perfected by the classic artists like Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, don't seem to be 'cool' anymore, according to cursory chart glances. But given the seemingly surprising success of artists like Stapleton who are trying to bring that sound back, maybe it's more than a passing nostalgic fad.
Traveller is old-fashioned in sound but forward leaning in spirit. Like his contemporary Sturgill Simpson, Stapleton is not afraid to talk about drug use. Traveller is a record written on the road, but one that paradoxically feels like home. The best example is the record closer and obvious highlight "Sometimes I Cry", a four-minute eternity of Mississippi mud backwater blues. Stapleton's voice so captivates his audience that there's an audibly shocked silence before the applause, and he ends the album with these simple, modest words: "And there you go. Thank y'all for being here."
No, Chris, thank YOU.