Chris Stapleton & Hank Williams Jr. Bring On an Outlaw State of Mind
21st-century Johnny & June: Chris Stapleton (L) and wife Morgane
Photos by Violeta Alvarez
Hank Williams Jr., Chris Stapleton, Wade Bowen
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
August 12, 2016
Arriving to Friday’s sold-out show at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion was no easy task. After a drive that spanned over two hours between the tollway and Houston’s own personal highway to hell known as I-45, I arrived to hear the last song by opener Wade Bowen and melt into a crowded line that spanned hundreds deep into the street on both sides of the Pavilion.
Whatever criticisms fans may throw at the venue — the traffic, uncomfortable seats, $8 corndogs or (my favorite) "Why in the hell does it face WEST?" cannot be extended to the view of the stage or the sound system. The screens alone are almost enough to forgive what it lacks in parking and westward sunburns on your backside.
Despite the hike through the oppressive heat and humidity, I was curious to hear Bocephus, and even more interested to hear Chris Stapleton who seems to be carrying the torch of outlaw country to the next generation along with assorted peers like Eric Church, Cody Canada & the Departed and Stoney LaRue, among others. These acts seem to carry an authenticity that makes many modern country acts seem like mere façades by comparison.
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This show, however, was thankfully devoid of the typical Nashville racket.
First things first: While I have a passing interest in modern country music, and a healthy respect for the contributions of classic outlaw country, my take on this concert was an outsider's view at best. That said, anyone who came of age within the past 50 years south of the Mason-Dixon line can attest to the “family tradition” inspiration of Hank Williams' lineage. Their contribution to music cannot be underestimated nor duplicated, and their influence has easily expanded beyond genre lines.
When Chris Stapleton and his wife Morgane took the stage, Houston gave them a well-deserved standing ovation. Onstage, the couple makes an incredible duo, with a stage presence so endearing and harmonious it’s reminiscent of Johnny and June.
Chris cycled through numerous guitar changes and played a handful of his best songs, including “Hard Living,” “Outlaw State of Mind” and “Nobody to Blame.” And perhaps for the only time in anecdotal concert history, “Might As Well Get Stoned” garnered plenty of hoots and hollers but no celebratory tokers. His set offered a number of covers from Charlie Daniels, David Allen Coe and a mash-up of “Freebird” and “The Devil Named Music,” a song from his Grammy-winning 2015 breakout album, Traveller.
Longtime Willie Nelson harmonica player Mickey Raphael (L) with Stapleton
Naturally compelling and musically rich, Stapleton's performance delivered the kind of provocative songwriting and disheveled arrangements that modern country so desperately needs. He is a bearded antidote to the the horde of ball-capped faux country stars with sparkly-butt blue jeans who make Johnny Cash roll in his grave.
I mean, come on. Country music is far more deserving of respect than the genre's more brazenly commercial artists would lead many casual observers to believe. It's not all truck nuts, Yeti stickers and Blue Lives Matter memes, rather an art form that demands the same respect as other genres. While caricatures of the proverbial hick may be a long-running joke, nobody onstage Friday night deserved such mockery.
By the time Bocephus took the stage, the crowd had slightly thinned, which I found surprising considering that, appreciate his political leanings or not, HWJ is country-music royalty. No matter; it was obvious that he caters to his fans and no one else. He’s completely self-aware — as he told the audience several times, “This ain’t my first rodeo!” If he hasn’t won you over by now, he’s not going to try any harder; just take him as he is.
Bocephus still knows how to work a crowd.
As expected, hyper-patriotic, Christian-only values and a mistrust of all things progressive permeated his set. When he played “Keep the Change," a noticeable fervor greeted the line “keeping [one’s] guns,” and his aside “Don’t you just love that [socialist] shit?” brought an outright roar. That passion did feel akin to a Trump rally at times; one woman, clearly a dedicated fan, wore nothing but an American flag around her body.
This sort of self-indulgent proselytizing was graciously missing from Stapleton's set, but anticipated from Junior. Yet when Bocephus flexes that wood-smoked baritone and it encompasses the entire arena to a point where it vibrates within your own chest, it's easy to put politics aside and admire his colossal talent. His voice has such power that the typical country “twang” becomes an asset — not a nerve-grating, nasally-honking wail. When he sweeps across the lyrics of a song like “A Country Boy Can Survive,” you realize just how few voices can safely be called an instrument all their own.
HWJ and his mischievous smirk have an undeniable charm, too. Hearing him tell of stories of growing up at his father’s piano before singing a perfect rendition of his daddy’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” while proclaiming, “I am not adopted!” — those kind of details make you appreciate the artist behind all the controversy and criticism.
Despite his detractors, HWJ remains unrepentant and unapologetic, which is why his fan base adores him. His Confederate-flag-waving, Obama-hating, anti-gay-agenda-having self ain’t changing for nobody, either. And while this author may disagree with his political pontificating, I can agree that ol’ Bocephus still has it where it counts — in his pipes.
Now, if he would just pipe down about all that other mess…
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