November 10, 2015 by Jay Minkin
On October 27, 1975 Bruce Springsteen changed the face of rock ‘n roll when he appeared on the cover of two news magazines simultaneously. Forty years later, Chris Stapleton changed the face of country music on November 4th, 2015 when he won three CMA Awards for Best New Artist, Male Vocalist, and Album of the Year for his solo debut release Traveler which hit record stores on May 5th. After the awards, Stapleton’s album topped the Billboard 200 charts with 153,000 album sales and 177,000 including downloads of the song “Tennessee Whiskey” he performed on the awards show with Justin Timberlake. Growing up in Northeast Ohio, we were already turned onto the Boss prior to his historic newsstand splash thanks to folks like DJ Kid Leo who hand-picked what to play on the radio. In today’s world, corporate stations woke up the next morning trying to figure out how to install Stapleton into the cookie cutter clutter of what country radio programing has become. Thankfully, luck had a strange way of being at the right place at the right time back in 2008.
If you take some tight new-style bluegrass music and mix it with a heavy dose of Lynyrd Skynyrd vocal accompaniment, you kind of end up with the sound of the SteelDrivers back when Stapleton was lead singer/guitarist for the Grammy Award winning ensemble. I saw the group perform at The Station Inn in Nashville and they were the highlight of my first Americana showcase crawl. Their self-titled release contained some great songs like “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey”, “Midnight Train to Memphis”, “If it Hadn’t Been For Love”, and their 2009 Grammy nominated song “Blue Side of the Mountain”. The band continued to garner critical acclaim behind their 2010 album Reckless, which was honored for “Best Bluegrass Album” and “Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group” for the song “Where Rainbows Never Die”. The album included other songs which are part of the band’s repertoire including “Good Corn Liquor”, “Peacemaker”, and “The Reckless Side of Me”. But Stapleton departed after recording the album prior to the subsequent tour.
For the next five years, other than a brief stint founding a touring band called The Jompson Brothers, Stapleton just crank out hit songs for other recording artists. The impressive list includes household country names Loveless, Chesney, Turner, Womack, Rucker, Krauss, Straight, Jackson, and Bryan. Adele found and recorded “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” in 2011 and it seems lately that most of the prime time reality TV singing shows have at least one contestant ready to tackle it or another of his songs. Those who have been following Stapleton had been salivating for news of the anticipated debut solo record that was going to be written on Stapleton’s own terms since leaving Steeldrivers.
Well the wait seems to be worth it as Traveler, recorded at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A, features twelve original songs along with “Tennessee Whiskey” written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove along with “Was It 26” by Don Sampson. Produced by Dave Cobb and recorded by Vance Powell, Stapleton (guitar/mandolin) surrounded himself with a great team and added some great players including J.T. Cure (bass), Robby Turner (pedal steel), Mike Webb (keyboards), and Derek Mixon (drums). Guests artists included the great Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Cobb on guitar/percussion, and his wife Morgane Stapleton singing harmonies. The album was inspired by a road trip he took after his father died in 2013 with his wife. After penning the title track, they sifted through 15 years of songs and chose 9 to start recording with.
The double disc Lp release has catchy radio singles like “When The Stars Come Out”, a gritty rocker in “Parachute”, some old time rock ‘n roll in “Fire Away”, and outlaw renaissance in “Nobody To Blame”. A sad acoustic number spotlighting Stapleton’s voice about bottles and relationships can be heard in “Whiskey and You” while he shares the stage with Morgane on “More of You” that will remind listeners of a cosmic cowboy. Two of the tracks, “Might As Well Get Stoned” and the closing live recording of “Sometimes I Cry” feature some nice guitar riffs and solo bridges. If you haven’t heard Stapleton stretch his vocal range on “Tennessee Whiskey” or the toe tapping title track single, then this story is dedicated to you. It’s a priority for me to expose readers to new artists and releases, so this fabulous record needs to be on your radar by either sampling or making it an addition to your musical library.
Stapleton is a triple threat artist as he is a brilliant songwriter, can be played on pure country radio as well as those that include southern fried into their rock format. He is yet another of the misfits, outcasts and renegades of the outlaw country music genre coming out of Nashville. He has boldly broken down the door that fellow songwriters like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson have been knocking on which probably has Johnny and Waylon looking down smiling.