A number of industry insiders consider Kentucky-born singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton to be one of the most talented people in Nashville. The 37-year-old musician has written a handful of No. 1 mainstream country hits including Kenny Chesney's "Never Wanted Nothing More," has placed 170 songs on the charts, and has had his work covered by everyone from Luke Bryan to Adele. He recently released his first solo album, Traveller, and plays Warehouse Live's Ballroom Thursday night.
“I’m really looking forward to playing in Houston,” says Stapleton. “I’ve only been down there a few times and never on my own. It’s funny because I know Texas is a place where people like to go hear music, where they’re open to new music and new ideas, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense that I haven’t worked Texas more.”
Stapleton was going about his usual business of writing songs for other artists when an old friend, Brian Wright, asked him to lunch. Stapleton thought it was just one of those “let’s catch up” affairs and was startled when Wright, an A&R executive with Universal Music, asked him if he’d like to record a country album. Stapleton asked Wright to let him think about it.
“I hadn’t really thought about going solo or doing a country album, so I needed a little time,” Stapleton recalls. “I talked it over with my wife and we decided I should go for it.”
With more than a decade of Music Row experience behind him, including two albums with Grammy-nominated bluegrass supergroup SteelDrivers and a detour into garage-y Southern rock with an outfit called the Jompson Brothers, Stapleton signed with Universal Music Group subsidiary Mercury Records. He cut and released a single, “What Are You Listening To,” which failed to enter the Top 40.
“That’s the old formula, sign an artist, cut a single and hope it will be a hit,” Stapleton laughs. “I made the rounds of the radio stations and did what you’re supposed to do, and those people were extremely nice and positive, but at the end of the day, it didn’t go anywhere. I took it as just another sign that it’s a new day in the business, that there are all kinds of ways and models to get music out there now instead of just the one tried and true way in the past.”
Stapleton kept writing new music for himself and for others, and eventually the label asked him to go back in the studio.
“Universal gave us a budget to cut six songs,” Stapleton explains, “so we booked six or seven days of studio time and went at it.”
He chose a sizzling commodity to produce Traveller. Dave Cobb is one of Nashville's hottest young producers, whose credits include Jason Isbell, Rival Sons, A Thousand Horses, Lindi Ortega and Sturgill Simpson. Stapleton liked the idea of working with a young producer rather than one of the tried-and-true architects of Nashville radio hits.
“I heard about half a song off the Sturgill Simpson record and knew that Dave was a guy I wanted to work with,” says Stapleton. “Sonically Dave’s in his prime. I didn’t know how to make sounds on records like that. That was the big draw as far as having him produce the record. Plus we have a lot of the same influences. Dave also makes brilliant rock and roll records and he’s a great spirit. [Someone is talking in the background and Stapleton asks me to hold on.] Oh, and my wife says he’s got great taste in wine.
“We were just so attuned to each other in the studio,” Stapleton explains. “We’d booked like a week in the studio, but in just two days we’d already completed the six songs Mercury asked for. So I called Brian and asked him to come over and see if he thought we were on the right track, because Dave and I wanted to keep going. So he came over and listened and told us to keep going.”
By most of today’s standards in country music, the 14 songs on Traveller play a bit long at 49 minutes. It contains a dozen strong tunes, mostly co-writes with other Nashville writers, but also includes two covers including a searing interpretation of George Jones' hit “Tennessee Whiskey.” Tunes like "I Might As Well Get Stoned" and "Outlaw State of Mind" are exactly the dose of outlaw that country music is missing these days, but will more likely find a bigger reception on Texas radio than on iHeart Radio. Stapleton says the label didn’t blink or counter his suggestion that those 14 tracks made up the album he wanted to release, and everyone's judgment seemed to be validated when Traveller debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. It also reached the top 15 on the magazine's Top 200 chart.
“Cindy Mabe [president of Universal Music Group] and everyone were very supportive and positive,” says Stapleton. “So here we are, out on the road seeing what we can make of this opportunity and fulfill our end of the deal.”
Radio plays a big part in most major-label decisions, but according to Stapleton it seemed like a secondary consideration.
“That’s something we’re still trying to work out and think through,” the singer explains. “But we didn’t come into the project with getting a hit on country radio in mind. I actually thought this would be much like the other records and projects I’ve done, that I’d get a record I could sell at gigs and we’d just get out and play and build an audience. That’s about the only model I know.
“I like songwriting, but I also really love playing and performing for people — that’s the bottom line," Stapleton says. "My thinking is if we play well enough and the crowd is drawn to it, things like record sales will take care of themselves. There are all of these new ways of getting music out there and of getting attention, so the old model is just not the model anymore. Personally I see lots of possibilities in the new paradigm, but I also think it contributes a lot of white noise to the system. But that’s just part of how things are now too.”
Critics and fans have been vocal about current Americana phenom Sturgill Simpson possibly being the beginning of a traditionalist revival in mainstream country music, a reaction to the rather banal bro-country that seems to be primarily marketed towards high-school females. Randy Travis, Travis Tritt, and Garth Brooks have all been cited as traditionalists who took country music back to a more legitimate path when they became popular. But Stapleton isn’t so sure about all of that.
“I don’t think Sturgill sees himself that way,” Stapleton surmises. “I’m not aware of any mainstream radio programmers who’ve put him in rotation yet, so I’m not sure I can go along with the idea that there is some kind of return to traditional country that you’re talking about. I doubt Sturgill sees himself in that light. And I certainly don‘t consider myself as part of some traditionalist movement. And I think if you are part of a movement, you don’t necessarily know it at the time. ”
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Like any artist, Stapleton says he’d love to get played on the radio, but he understands if he doesn’t.
“There are so few slots to have a hit on radio and I’m 37, so I can’t wait around to put out singles and see if they hit. For me, I want to go play and try to give people music they like. It would be nice if radio was in that equation, but we haven’t quite figured out that formula. We’re working on it, though,” he laughs.
“As an artist or a label, you have to understand that radio has a different set of goals than we do,” Stapleton explains. “Their goal is to have hits that make people tune into their station and our goal is to sell records by having a hit on their stations. The trick is to make the goals align. Right now we’re just trying to walk through the doors that are open for us.”
Chris Stapleton performs Thursday night at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel. Doors open at 7 p.m.