Chris Stapleton talks a lot about ‘happy accidents’ and ‘fate’, when describing the process that led him to his debut solo album ‘Traveller’, one of the most acclaimed country or Americana releases of 2015.
The 37 year old has been a fixture in the Nashville scene for years, both as a member of Grammy-nominated bluegrass band The SteelDrivers and as an A-list songwriter, penning hits for Luke Bryan, George Strait, Gary Allan and many more. But a record under his own name has been a long time coming and the path to ‘Traveler’ began with professional and personal low points.
His first stab at solo success, a 2013 single ‘What Are You Listening To?” stalled on the charts. Looking back, Stapleton can see why. “I think it didn’t work because I wasn’t really paying attention to being myself.”
He wrote the song at the request of his record label and recorded with their choice of producer. “I didn’t play guitar on it, which makes it the only thing I’ve ever recorded that I didn’t play guitar on. So there was probably less of myself in that than anything I’ve ever done.”
Stapleton took a step back and began reassessing his musical direction, a period of soul-searching also prompted by an event that made the failure of his single pale into insignificance. “My dad died on October 13, 2013. There were a lot of switches that got flipped for me right around that time.”
In the aftermath, his wife Morgane, a musical collaborator who sings on the album, bought Stapleton a ’79 Jeep Cherokee (Stapleton loves old cars) in Phoenix, Arizona. He wrote the song ‘Traveller’ on their drive back to Nashville, and it helped focus his direction for the album.
“Those things, particularly my dad passing away, kind of got to me. I started trying to make a record that I think he would’ve liked. He was a huge country music fan and that’s where my love of that music comes from.”
Stapleton had a catalogue of songs deep enough for a dozen albums, so how did he choose which songs were going to represent him as Chris Stapleton the artist?
“My wife made a list and said ‘Here’s what you should be doing’. She narrowed it down to about 20 songs, and Dave and I picked them out from there.”
Dave is Dave Cobb, the record producer who has become renowned in recent years for helping acclaimed roots singer-songwriters like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson find a timeless, organic, authentic sound that helps express their most personal songs.
“I heard about a half-song on the last Sturgill Simpson record. As soon as I heard it, I thought here’s a guy I’d have to hunt down, because he makes records that sound the way that I want them to sound, coming out of speakers. It’s certainly something I felt like maybe we’ve gone away from. It didn’t even know we were able to do it anymore, because I’m not an engineer. Dave is a gear nut on all those things. If you’ve got a record and you like the way it sounds, he can really get you as close to that sonically as you want to be, because he’s informed. He’s everything that a producer should be, in my mind.”
The sound of ‘Traveller’ is steeped in country music history, particularly the 70s outlaw country sound of artists like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson (Willie’s harmonica player Mickey Raphael lends his distinctive talents to the album). It was only fitting that they recorded the album in Nashville’s famed RCA Studio A, a legendary studio where iconic hits like Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and Waylon’s “The Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” were recorded.
“There are things in the walls. Some buildings have vibe, history, call it what you will. That place has all of that. When you get to stand in the place where Dolly Parton sang or Waylon Jennings recorded numbers and numbers of records, it’s a really, really inspiring thing.”
The result was an album that has instantly connected with fans and critics alike. It sold more in its first week than any other country album had so far this year and catapulted Stapleton, previously an almost complete unknown to the general public, to a brand new level of stardom, a level that includes multiple Grammy and CMA Awards. It’s a deserving career shift for a man who has contributed so many songs over many years to the country music charts as a songwriter.
Despite much of the praise being heaped on the album coming from critics of contemporary country hitmakers and the commercial radio sound, Stapleton doesn’t see himself in an adversarial relationship with the mainstream. He hopes that by having made an album that is truer to himself, he can avoid the disappointment of his last stab at chart success in 2013.
“I certainly hope some of it can find its way on to country radio. I think just because what is the norm on country radio right now maybe is not exactly what this record is, I don’t think that means it can’t be. That’s certainly my hope. I would love to be on the radio, but I would love to be on the radio in a way where I’m not trying to chase someone else or do somebody else’s thing. This is me trying to be as genuine and artistic as I can and think if you can marry those two, it’s the best of both worlds.”