Chris Stapleton – A New Old-Fashioned Country Star (Part Two)

LifeInASong_UK
Photo Credit: Andy Barron

In Part One of this essay, Jonny Brick looked at the beginning of Chris Stapleton’s career as a songwriter for others and singer in The Steeldrivers and under his own name.

You can hear a playlist of thirty of the best ‘Stapletunes’ in a Spotify playlist here: https://open.spotify.com/user/jonnybrick/playlist/39ST4mO0rB9Qgnz6Xusr62

In this second part, Jonny looks at the instant when Chris became a household name, six months into promoting Traveller, when he appeared on primetime TV…

And the Word was Stapleton

In 2015 the worst-kept secret in Nashville was out to the general public, when Chris Stapleton put out his debut album Traveller.

It is my contention that Chris, a man with a beard and a hat singing songs he has written with a guitar accompaniment and with harmonies by his wife Morgane, is the closest thing contemporary country music has to the likes of Jimmy Rodgers or Hank Williams.

He may even be more of a complete package, which may be why he is winning all these awards and selling millions of records in a time when nobody but about six artists (Adele, Ed Sheeran, K-Pop acts, Taylor Swift, possibly Beyonce) sell millions of records. Not even Paul McCartney sells millions of records any more. Not even Garth Brooks, either…

In November 2015 came the performance at the CMA Awards 2015 with Justin Timberlake.

Chris sang his cover of the old song Tennessee Whisky which went straight into Drink You Away, a recent tune by Justin. A star was born, while stars looked on with mouths open, as can be seen in the video footage on Youtube. Charles Kelley punches the air; Jimi from Little Big Town actually laughs at one point; Jake Owen is trying to disguise the fact that this is the performance that assassinated bro-country.

By a man with a beard and a former teen pop star. The former says of the latter, talking with Charlie Rose about the CMA performance: ‘Eight minutes that can change your life. I knew that we were gonna have a really fun time cos we’d spent two days rehearsing. He’s a remarkable singular talent.’

As is Justin, so is Chris, according to the woman he married. Morgane Stapleton told Rolling Stone in 2015: ‘Chris is a master, and I say this with all due respect, at messing things up. He can take something so recognizable and turn it into something totally different where it’s almost unrecognizable, in the best way possible.’

The Washington Post looked back on CMA Awards set, which Morgane performed in too, in November 2016, a year after the event. R.J. Curtis, who covers country for All Access Music Group, was shocked that country radio didn’t play more of his music as a result of a much-watched Youtube clip. It is true that Parachute and Nobody to Blame both got thousands of spins, while Tennessee Whiskey became a sales number one.

Kyle Coroneos, who as ‘Trigger’ runs the insurrectionist website Saving Country Music, said that Chris represents acts whose fanbase ‘are the great forgotten country music fans’.

The success of acts like Chris, to Trigger, ‘is a result of an underlying anger and frustration of what country music had become. I think even a lot of the artists that are responsible for some of the music that gets criticized so often — this isn’t the stuff they want to do.

‘They look at Chris Stapleton with envy and with respect, because that’s what they wish they could have created for themselves.’

Will Hoge, a contemporary of Chris’s, said to the Washington Post: ‘I think one would be foolish to think that all of a sudden that’s going to change country radio or something like that. But it did sort of pull the curtain back and go, “Okay, there is more to country music” for people that are on the outside.

‘There’s more than just the truck songs and beer songs.’

Attracted by songs about getting stoned, being as smooth as Tennessee Whiskey and being a girl’s parachute, 153,000 people bought Traveller that next week, a 150% improvement on its total sales, which were impressive at just short of 100,000 in six months.

Just for good measure, Chris won another ASCAP Most Performed Song award for Crash and Burn in 2016 – which, remember, took him to seven! – and he also took home a Vanguard Award previously won by the likes of Beastie Boys, Beck, The Killers, Kendrick Lamar and Arcade Fire. (Meghan Trainor won one in 2017.)

Then came a year of promotion and huge awards by bodies just piggybacking on his success. Chris won the CMA Male Vocalist of the Year 2015 AND 2016, taking Album of the Year in 2015 and, laughably, winning ‘New Artist of the Year’. He narrowly lost out (I suppose he had to) to Taylor Swift in the Album of the Year category at the GRAMMYs, but took Best Country Album, also winning Best Country Solo performance for the title track. I wonder where he’s put the trophies…

Quite bizarrely, thanks to its sales across eighteen months, Billboard gave Chris the award for Top Country Album in both 2016 and 2017 to Traveller. But Chris lost out in Top Country Artist at the Billboard Music Awards in both years, to Luke in 2016 and to Blake in 2017.

The ACM Awards, given out by the Academy of Country Music, gave him four awards in 2016: Album, Song, Male Vocalist and (of course!) New Male Vocalist. He got a grand total of zero in 2017.

Britain showed him love, buying his records and falling silent for him at Country2Country in March 2016. The British Country Music Association gave Tennessee Whiskey International Song of the Year and Traveller the equivalent award for the Album of the Year.

Traveller is, as I write this sentence, closing in on two million (TWO MILLION: 2,000,000) copies sold. It may well have passed that mark some time in June or July 2017, in spite of Chris having to cancel a string of dates and a CMA Fest appearance in June due to an injured hand.

He hopes to make it for the gig at Wrigley Field, which will celebrate the fortieth birthday of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Chris told Wheeler Walker, Jr. on his podcast (in which he admitted that he was ‘a terrible interviewee, I don’t have much to talk about aside from music!’) that he loved Tom’s album Wildflowers: ‘It made me appreciate the art of the album. You can put it on and listen to it top to bottom.’

Traveller, to pay it a high compliment, works in much the same manner.

Following It Up

Speaking to Rolling Stone in December 2015, Dave Cobb said that Traveller’s runaway success was ‘like getting in a bad car wreck and you don’t feel like you’re hurt for a while.’ Morgane Stapleton, meanwhile, said that the CMA Awards she and Chris had won were ‘heavy glass, and it means a shit ton. It was a performance and three awards, and life is completely different.’

Chris himself admitted it was like living in an alternate universe. Just before he came over to the UK in March 2016, he and his band headlined three dates at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville; barely six months previously they had been there opening for Jason Isbell. The chart-topping albums of both men are produced by the same fellow, Dave Cobb, who is a sort of Chet Atkins figure, and not just because Chris recorded his two albums in RCA Studio A, the ‘A Room’ of the second and third albums from Chris.

‘We don’t know what the new reality is as far as people coming to shows or being curious enough to buy a ticket,’ Chris said in 2015, ‘or scalpers trying to charge people $800 a ticket.’

That nuisance especially irks Morgane. ‘We’ve never dealt with scalpers. So we get online and try to keep up with fans and look at Facebook, and the fans feel totally exposed and unprotected. There’s all kinds of new things to deal with.’

Chris told Rolling Stone in a 2017 interview: ‘I want people to come to our show to listen. I want the show to be the music.’ I was in the Greenwich Arena at Country2Country 2016 with sixteen thousand others, and Chris had the X Factor. Nobody moved during Whiskey and You, and he seemed only to play for ten minutes before he had to make way for Kacey Musgraves and Eric Church, who also straddle mainstream commercial success with critical adoration.

Simon Cowell would probably have said he lacked real star power, or sex appeal, but as has been said before, the music industry needs Chris Stapleton more than he needs the industry.

Commenting at the end of 2016, Jon Loba, executive vice president of BBR Music Group and a director-at-large on the CMA board, said to the Washington Post that he hadn’t seen a lot of ‘“copycat” artists. He said that the CMA Awards performance was akin to a ‘religious experience, truly magical’.

Jake Owen, who has been friends with him for years, joked that people are making Stapleton out to be ‘godlike’; what he actually did, Owen said, is ‘bring another element to country music that’s been missing for a while.’

That is, while Jake Owen was busy playing stadiums as King of the Beach. If Stapleton ended up at the beach you’d think he didn’t have a home.

From A Room

British fans helped get From A Room: Volume 1 into the top 30 of the UK album chart, while he was unlucky to be held off number 1 in the overall Top 200 in the States. He did of course claim number one in the country album charts, as well as going top 20 in Australia and topping the Canadian overall album charts.

Guesting on the Charlie Rose show the week of the album’s release, where he played a solo version of Either Way on a well-worn Gibson acoustic guitar, Chris shrugged when it was put to him he was ‘country’s reigning outlaw’, especially given a track on Traveller was called Outlaw State of Mind.

‘I’m not much of an outlaw! I always have in my mind Waylon, Willie and Merle Haggard. They were just being themselves and doing what feels good to them. I’m a kind of bridge. For me it’s important to have a tip of the hat to those guys and old r’n’b singers: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin.’

He has a contemporary in Drake White, who is also coming up in the Staplewake, along with Luke Combs and the real-life dramas of Margo Price. Will historians like me look back on Chris Stapleton as a Hank-sized figure in the genre, or at least a Dixie Chicks-type, who changed the game?

The Rolling Stone magazine review of From A Room: Volume 1 (‘the most anticipated country album of the year’) described Chris as a soul singer, ‘with a preternaturally creaky voice that can turn wizened or brawny, full of pained howls and distended vowels.’

Chris ‘conjures Otis Redding as much as Waylon Jennings’ and the writer of the piece imagined the great bluesman B. B. King singing one of the tracks.

Up to No Good Living, written with Casey Beathard, is a fan favourite in more ways than one. ‘My wife loves that song!!’ Chris said to Charlie Rose, adding with self-deprecation: ‘She has good taste in just about everything except men!’ The song’s second line is about the man wishing he didn’t have ‘a check in my breath’. Instead of being faithful, he’s out on the town having fun and having to beg his woman to overlook his love of drink.

Either Way is another longtime favourite of Morgane’s. Chris played it at the seminar for radio DJs before the album’s release, which means everyone spinning the song will remember that performance. Whatever the lady does, Chris ‘won’t love you either way’. I Was Wrong, with a smooth guitar part that is one of Chris’s many USPs, ends with Chris singing his sorrow with the guitar ringing away into the distance. A performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon shows how much of a star Chris is, without even being starry.

I Was Wrong, written by Chris with the great Craig Wiseman, is described in a track-by-track review (usually only given to the most important albums) as ‘the album’s centrepiece…[It] simmers its way from a bare-boned verse to an elastic, explosive chorus.’ The guitar solo in the middle is excellent, and it’s a near-perfect summation of the art of Chris Stapleton.

After leaving The Steeldrivers in 2010, Chris played with the Jompson Brothers. In 2017 he opens for the likes of Guns N Roses, telling Wheeler Walker, Jr: ‘It was really amazing. We met Axl after the show. He was nice, offered me a bottle of water!

‘It was a surreal thing. I grew up on Appetite for Destruction, and he was living in an alternate universe for a bit.’

In the real world, for his real nine-track album From A Room: Volume 1 (might there be Guns N Roses covers on the second volume?), Chris wrote four tracks with Mike Henderson, his mate from the Steeldrivers.

Second One to Know is a three-chord blues anthem about wanting to discover if he’s been the victim of lost love before anyone else; Death Row is pure blues, with Chris’s wail putting Jack White’s to shame. Kentucky-born Chris knows his blues as well as his bluegrass.

Without Your Love, another Henderson-Stapleton co-write, starts off sounding like an Adele song, with the drummer riding the hi-hat cymbal and Chris strumming in a minor key with a descending melodic line. The vocals come in with the line ‘yesterday just came and went’; the song takes a minute to get off the initial minor chord, with a sense of foreboding omnipresent. It’s hardly country music; it’s a tone poem, and Henderson is due as much praise as Stapleton. When the chorus finally comes in, the key modulating to the relative major of E-flat, it is to praise Morgane, or indeed any girl: ‘Without your love every sky is grey…I was waiting on the sun to shine…Every hour is the darkest time of day’.

The fourth Henderson-Stapleton co-write on From A Room: Volume 1 is Broken Halos, of which Chris told Charlie Rose: ‘In Keith Richards’s memoir, he referred to friends he had lost and called them “broken halos”.

‘I recorded that song on the day a guy I grew up with passed away of pancreatic cancer.’

Them Stems, with a jaunty rhythm, is about the absence of weed and love: ‘I’m in a bad, bad way!’ Chris cries, unconvincingly. ‘We were having so much fun recording that song that there is actually a fourth verse we forgot! We might have smoked them stems. Or at least had too much bourbon.’ This points to Chris Stapleton as the true heir of Willie Nelson, and not just because they share harmonica players.

Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael played on Traveller and returned for From A Room, where he stars on Them Stems, getting eight bars to himself. In 2015, before that album was recorded, Dave Cobb told Rolling Stone: ‘We made a record for no other reason than to make a great record. No plotting of “What is going to be the first single?” or “We have to have tempo [songs]” or “We have to have a ballad”.’

Chris Stapleton chose to record eight of his own tunes and one cover for the first volume of From A Room. ‘Last Song I Needed, First Thing This Morning’ by Gary P. Nunn and Donna Sioux Farar, made famous by Willie Nelson, is a classic song. Chris told Rolling Stone: ‘It’s one of the greatest country songs ever written. If you wanted an instruction manual on “How You Write a Country Song”, that song would do it.’

Indeed, Willie is one of many top stars to have recorded in RCA Studio A, which was almost knocked down in 2014 before an angel investor bought the freehold. As the Nashville Scene noted, Traveller would have been the very last album to be recorded there.

Conclusion: A Changed Life, Unchanged

Rolling Stone spoke to him again in advance of From A Room: Volume 1’s release, where he commented on Music City: ‘It used to take me 15 minutes to get down to Music Row and I was seven miles away. Then it was taking me almost an hour.’

Smartly talking of his new success, Chris told Charlie Rose: ‘Music is free. You pay for my travel!’ He sells music to fans at his shows (‘it comes from bluegrass’). He also helped promote his album appearing on the Kix Brooks show. ‘You’re blowin’ up!!’ shouted the Brooks half of Brooks & Dunn, aghast at Chris’s success.

‘It’s like an alternate reality. You play a room, you’re used to playing bars and clubs then you get in another room where it’s a faceless mass of people and they’re all singing,’ Chris coolly replied.

Following up an album bought by two million people was ‘not pressure,’ said Chris. ‘But I feel a responsibility to try to maintain the way we did it.’ Dave Cobb added: ‘You don’t need to try. It’s who you are. You making another record waking up and singing songs that you wrote is going to be great.’

The last word on Chris and his greatness, humble though it is, goes to Chris himself: a husband, a father, an award-winning musician whose songs are critically acclaimed and sell in huge numbers.

‘I tell my mum all the time I’ve literally had everything I ever wanted,’ he told Charlie Rose, emotionally. ‘That’s a strange feeling. I’ve gotta get new goals!’

From A Room: Volume 1 is out now. Chris Stapleton is on tour this year, and releases Volume Two some time in the fall.

Jonny Brick

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