Chris Stapleton: A New Old-Fashioned Country Star (Part One)

LifeInASong_UK
Photo Credit: Andy Barron

Ninety years ago country musicians with beards and hats sang songs about life and love with guitars in their hands.

In 2017 we have Chris Stapleton. The musicians of the 1930s were poor and trotted gamely from radio station to roadhouse to play for poor folk; in the time of widespread civil disparity between haves and have-ain’ts, it can be unfair to ask for singers to give us relief.

But just listen to any Chris Stapleton song and it could be 1935, 1965, 1995 or 2017. He took his time, but the time is right for Chris to represent what country music is about. After Zac Brown and Brad Paisley, thanks to his massive debut release Traveller, Chris Stapleton shares with those acts both critical and commercial acclaim. He is well-liked as a performer and songwriter, and can silence vast arenas with just his voice and a guitar.

An interview with CBS’s Anthony Mason had him discussing his position as so-called saviour of a genre dominated by bros.

‘I don’t see myself as fighting the good fight. It gets made up in media and culture.

‘I always feel like if you don’t like one kind of music or the other, it’s not for you. I’m only worried about what I’m doing, how I present music. I try to do things I want to listen to.’

There’s two kinds of songs on the radio, he added: hits, and ‘ones that move the needle. I don’t know the difference but you try to be as timeless as you can be.

‘We need the hits for the sake of being hits, because they pay for the “move the needle” songs. They’re all part of the same wheel. One’s not good, one’s not evil. Nobody wants to sit around and listen to “I really have to analyse these lyrics” songs all the time.’

He expanded on this theme with a metaphor about Japanese cuisine in a great interview with Charlie Rose the week his latest album From A Room: Volume One was released.

‘I don’t like sushi but I don’t get other people to not eat sushi! I grew up landlocked, so we didn’t have many sushi joints. A lot of chatter around music feels to me, one kind of music is right, one kind is wrong. If music makes somebody feel good…’ he trailed off.

In the Beginning was Stapleton

Born in Kentucky from coalmining stock, Chris Stapleton moved to Nashville but dropped out of an engineering degree to play music. He signed to Sea Gayle Publishers, which was set up by the songwriter Chris DuBois to promote great writers and find songs for great new acts to sing.

‘I always played music and sang in church with my brother,’ Chris said to Charlie Rose in 2017. ‘My mum would sing around the house. It was always there.

‘I fell into it maybe through a lack of doing anything else. It found me!’

As he was writing songs he found Morgane, who became his wife and is a songwriter of good repute herself. At the close of 2015, Rolling Stone magazine ran an interview with Chris and Morgane, as they went in to record a cover of You Are My Sunshine, which they perform in their live shows, for Dave Cobb’s Southern Family project. Those words are inscribed, it was revealed to Dave’s surprise, on Chris’s wedding ring.

For three years Chris played in a bluegrass band called The Steeldrivers. His day job was as a songwriter, and in 2006 he started getting cuts on albums by the likes of Josh Turner and Trace Adkins.

No star seems not to have recorded a Stapleton song. A cut called The Best Thing That I Had Goin’ can be found on Brad Paisley’s Mud on the Tires album from way back in 2003, and as will be discussed he got a cut on Tim McGraw’s 2007 release with a song that asked the ‘difference between whiskey and you’.

Miranda Lambert had the scorching Nobody’s Fool on her Four The Record album, while the former Mr Miranda, Blake Shelton, has cut five of them. Even Adele cut If It Hadn’t Been For Love, which came out as a bonus track on 19; the song by the Steeldrivers was sung by Chris with his lips very close to the mic and with magical harmonies completing a fantastic arrangement.

Drinking was the theme in his song I Got Drunk, a Southern rocker recorded by Montgomery Gentry back in 2004, whose chorus goes ‘so sue me!’ Dierks Bentley gave Chris another cut with his song Diamonds Make Babies, from his 2012 release Home, which was written with the pair Jim Beavers and Lee Thomas Miller.

That song’s chorus is brilliant. It’s a warning to someone hoping to marry a girl but who must be aware that she may be ‘singing “pink or blue”’:

Diamonds make babies, and babies make mamas

And mamas make daddies make changes they don’t always want

In 2012, Love’s Gonna Make It Alright opened George Strait’s album Here for a Good Time. It’s a smooth tune about the power of love, and I am positive it’s Chris’s voice that you can hear on the chorus backing the man known as King George. The cut gave him the ASCAP Country Music Award for one of the Most Performed Songs in the genre…

For the seventh year in a row.

The first occasion came in 2006, for Your Man, which was followed by Swing, Never Wanted Nothing More, Another You, Keep on Lovin You and Come Back Song. It seems that Chris Stapleton was earning a lot of dosh and kudos from this songwriting lark.

Those seven songs show the versatility of Chris’s writing. He doesn’t only do ballads or stompers. Your Man is a smooth slow jam while Swing is one of the best pick-up songs, and Trace really sells the song. It’s a typical mid-2000s beer-and-ladies song.

Trace opens with a slurred ‘take me out to the ball game’, before a dirty riff that must have scorched through country radio all year comes in. The fun ‘swing batter batter swing’ lyric sets the tone for a song all about trying to pick up a girl; it’s very mid-2000s, all macho and balls out, and I reckon Chris had fun writing this one, which takes the baseball theme and runs with it. I hope he does it in concert some time!

Come Back Song is a song Chris has done on his own in radio sessions, speeding it up but imitating the gruff delivery of former Hootie and the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker. It’s a blues song that takes a positive look at apologising – ‘this is my “my bad, come back” song’ – and it connected with listeners back in 2010 and 2011. It has four chords and a great groove, and would be Darius’ career-defining song had he not sung Wagon Wheel.

Then came possibly Chris’s biggest cut, a song written with the great Ashley Gorley for Luke Bryan’s big album from 2013, Crash My Party. A song which puts in mind The Thinker by Rodin sitting on a tailgate, Drink a Beer is a sort of track Noel Gallagher would have written if he were working in country music: ‘I’m gonna sit right here…Watch the sunset disappear and drink a beer.’ It’s unusually philosophical for a Luke Bryan song, and that’s because Chris Stapleton co-wrote it. ‘Funny how the good ones go/ Too soon, but the good Lord knows the reasons why, I guess’. Deep stuff…

Meanwhile, Thomas Rhett cut one Stapleton track on each of his first two albums: Something to Do with my Hands from his first album, and the ASCAP-winning Crash and Burn from Tangled up. I love the last one and have quickly grown to love the first one. Both have young TR trying his best to play Chris Stapleton, quite cutely in the former but astonishingly well in the latter, which is one of the songs of the decade and unsurprisingly one of the songs of 2015: ‘I think love is overrated but I don’t like throwing it away.’

It seems Chris was wise to take a break before his solo career, leaving The Steeldrivers in 2010 in order to raise his kids and be with Morgane. The band carried on without him, retaining songs Chris co-wrote in their sets. Where Rainbows Never Die deserves to be as big a hit as some of those on Traveller. The protagonist looks back on life and looks forward to the afterworld. It’s as if Chris had tried to write the best ole timey, Pete Seeger-style folk-country song he could. A gospel act like Kirk Franklin could cover it successfully without losing any of the pathos.

Of his art, he explained to Charlie Rose that it was simply ‘strumming something and seeing where that leads. Something falls out of the sky into your lap.’

When Charlie asked whether he prefers writing to singing, Chris paused.

‘It’s easy to get done writing a song and feel proud of it. I get more pleasure out of singing a song that I know is great.’

In 2015, the world was to feel his pleasure.

Traveller

There is much joy on Traveller. Almost all are Stapleton co-writes, alongside a version of the early 80s hit for George Jones, Tennessee Whiskey, He obviously kept many of his own tunes back for himself, waiting and watching, having been signed to Mercury Records as a songwriter rather than a performer in the mid-2000s.

There is brilliance in the ballad When the Stars Come Out, written with Dan Wilson, formerly of the band Semisonic and who also wrote Someone Like You with Adele. That song is set when the stars ‘burn so bright’ on ‘one of those LA nights’. Pointing towards a track on Chris Stapleton’s second album, Might as Well Get Stoned is more three-chord blues with a guitar that benefits from the natural reverberation of RCA Studio A, where the album was recorded.

The title track, famously inspired by a long drive Chris took with Morgane, sets the tone for the album, which is continued with Parachute – ‘say the word and I’ll be there for you’ – and Nobody to Blame. That one, a top 10 in the wake of his CMA Awards performance (of which more in Part Two of this essay), is a blues song done in a country style.

Fire Away was accompanied by an excellent promo video. It’s in a very slow tempo, and like Nobody to Blame sets the man as a jackass who deserves punishment: ‘Choose the words that cut like a razor,’ he implores, then hangs on the word ‘fire’ so it carries almost an entire bar of music, which is very rare in any form of popular song today. All that are missing is the sound of bullets, which in any case are metaphorical.

You can get lost in Traveller, an album about love, loss and the human condition. As the song More of You states, where Chris plays the mandolin and Morgane adds a higher line in harmony: ‘Every little thing that you do, it makes me want more of you.’

Whisky and You: The Best Ever Country Song?

Chris Stapleton turns 40 next year. Truly he is the Alexander the Great of Country Music, with no worlds left to conquer. And Whiskey and You is cherished as one of his finest songs.

Almost two million people have watched his 2011 performance at the ASCAP EXPO. His treatment of it on Traveller, which mirrors that of 2011, differs greatly from the version Tim McGraw recorded in 2007.

It’s in a different key, for a start, Stapleton playing it in D rather than E; whereas Tim’s has drums, Chris’s does not, and the slide guitar is missing from the latter too. I think the key difference is that I believe Chris Stapleton more than Tim McGraw, especially in the line ‘I drink because I’m lonesome and I’m lonesome cos I drink’.

He is tormented by the memory that he tries to drown in whiskey. He’s hopeless, but he can’t help himself. It’s as if he is describing addiction, a vicious cycle he cannot break out of. The guitar fades away along with his prospects.

When inducting this song as Chris’s entry into the Country Way of Life Playlist at Blastocyst.org.uk, I accidentally typed the words ‘best version of the best country song ever recorded’. This is a pointless task, but Whiskey and You is up there with the best of them, at least. Chris’s version is superior to that of Tim McGraw, who seems to be doing a karaoke version of it.

Just like Josh Turner was doing with Your Man, what Thomas Rhett was doing with Crash and Burn and Darius Rucker was doing with Come Back Song. Nobody can do Stapleton like Stapleton.

And then, with help from a friend called Justin, the whole of America could drink him in…

Jonny Brick

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