2015 CD FEATURE
TRUE BRITT - NOVOCASTRIAN PREDICTED STAPLETON SUCCESS
“Train cry on, you're lonely just like me/ well I pray that this whistle/ can drown out my blues/ our love was a lie/ and that's the cold truth/ when two hearts are empty/ nothing is nothing to lose." - Lonely - Catherine Britt-Chris Stapleton.
Kentucky coal-miner's son Chris Stapleton may have had to wait until his 37th year on the planet to score huge sales for debut solo disc Traveller after his triumphant appearance on the 49th CMA Awards in November.
His live eight minute duet on the CMA Awards with Justin Timberlake on Tennessee Whiskey and Timberlake's Drink You Away ignited the sales flood that soared from 27,000 on debut in May to more than 520,000 six months later.
Stapleton and singing spouse Morgane, parents of a son and daughter, were popular guests on Nu Country TV before he won New Artist, Male Vocalist and Album of the Year.
The singer-songwriter topped the Billboard all genre Top 200 after being off the charts for six months.
“I have no idea what's next,” confessed Stapleton whose album was nominated for the Grammy for Album of the Year - one of his four nominations.
“I've been in the music business a while, but I've never done anything like this. It's been a bit overwhelming, but I'm going to do my best to handle it with some degree of grace. I'm gonna keep making music that hopefully I think is good, and whatever comes out of that, that will be fine with me.”
Stapleton was ineligible for a Grammy for best new artist as he was lead singer of The Steeldrivers when their album Blue Side of the Mountain earned a Grammy nomination for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals in 2008 - the same year they released their self-titled debut album on Rounder Records.
That was followed by nominations in 2009 for Best Bluegrass Album for Reckless and Country Performance by Duo or Group with Vocals for Where Rainbows Never Die.
Stapleton left the group in 2010 but continued making music and touring, including a European trek.
“I'm excited about that,” Stapleton says.
“Only once have I been overseas, a long, long time ago. I went to Switzerland , to play an acoustic gig with my wife, and haven't been back over much since. It's an exciting prospect for me to get overseas and see how country music can be received over there.
“I always like to see new places and meet new people and have new experiences, hopefully, and just take that in and see what it brings to life. I think all those things kind of enhance your life.”
Although critics used Stapleton's unforgettable CMA night as leverage to criticise country radio for his minimal airplay he won't bite.
“I feel loved by the awards, but I don't feel like music is a war or it's a battle or anything like that, and I think people have a tendency to try to make it into that. We all are out here, and anybody that's in here tonight, making music and working to the degree that it takes to be in the room, deserves the respect, and I think that of everybody that is out playing music.”
Stapleton's earthy vocal style has more in common with nouveau outlaws Jamey Johnson, Sturgill Simpson, Shooter Jennings and Jason Isbell who share producer Dave Cobb.
KENTUCKY ROOTS – OUTLAW STATE OF MIND
“Cut my teeth on Daddy's old LGO/ and I lost my mind somewhere in New Mexico/ and TW put a snake on my back/ I keep a red bar on my side/ and its people all across the land/ from East Kentucky downtown Alabam/ whole lotta like I am all the time/ in an outlaw state of mind.” - Outlaw State Of Mind - Chris Stapleton-Ronnie Bowman-Jerry Salley.
Stapleton moved to Nashville in 2001 but it took 14 years to release his first solo album.
Before relocating he lived in eastern Kentucky working odd jobs and trying to find a career that excited him as much as music.
He'd been playing guitar for years after he stumbled across the Gibson acoustic guitar his father - a coal miner who purchased the instrument in the hopes of someday learning to play it - stashed in the family home.
His father never found enough time to become an actual picker but Stapleton did, taking guitar lessons as a teenager before teaching himself the rest.
By his early 20s, he was delivering Papa John's pizza by day and playing bar gigs at night.
“I didn't know that song-writing could be an actual job,” Stapleton confessed.
“I didn't realise people did that for a living. Then I met a songwriter named Steve Leslie, who heard some of my songs and thought they were pretty good, and invited me down to Nashville to try writing with him.”
Stapleton performed with southern rock band Jompson Brothers and bluegrass aces the Steeldrivers before expanding prolific song-writing to fuel his album.
“I've always been in touring bands in some capacity,” Stapleton explained.
“I made two records with the Steeldrivers . They were nominated for two Grammys. I then I was in the Jompson Brothers ; we made kind of ‘70s hard rock music. And so, yeah, I've always done things like that, and it's always been part of what I do. “When I first got to town, the second guy I ever wrote with was Jerry Salley, who I wrote Outlaw State of Mine with. He said, 'man, country music is not for kids.' And I don't think it is. I wanted to make a pretty grown-up record, meant for grown-ups to sit around and listen to."
And he did heavy lifting in the studio after writing 12 of the 14 songs.
"I'm playing electric and acoustic guitar, mandolin. I'm singing on it, singing harmony with myself in some places on it. It could not be more me," he says of making an album his way, with only his touring band and producer Dave Cobb.
"It's really easy to go out there - and I'm not knocking anyone - and hire guys to do all these things for you. But for me, this is a great representation of what you can come and see live, and possibly connect with."
GETTING STONED FOR THE TROOPS
“Now every time I watch the TV/ another soldier dies/ another brother's gone/ another mother cries/ now I know they've got a job to do/ but if I had one wish/ I wish they'd all come home/ so, we could all get stoned. - Might As Well Get Stoned - Chris Stapleton.
Stapleton wrote five #1 hits for other artists including Luke Bryan's Drink a Beer, Darius Rucker's Come Back Song, Texan George Strait's Love's Gonna Make it Alright, Thomas Rhett's Crash & Burn and Kenny Chesney's Never Wanted Nothing More .
He has penned over 170 album cuts including songs recorded by Adele, singing actor Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Josh Turner, Jason Aldean and Dierks Bentley and has notable co-writers such as Vince Gill, Peter Frampton and Sheryl Crow.
His songs have also graced movie soundtracks and TV shows.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” admitted Stapleton whose talent was showcased on the late long lamented David Letterman TV show and other major avenues.
He performed Might as Well Get Stoned from Traveller on Letterman.
With his ace rhythm section and Morgane, Stapleton ignited the blues-kissed rocker, complete with snarling guitar solo.
Its narrator self-medicates to deal with personal demons, but he's also overwhelmed by bigger social concerns, like the sacrifice of soldiers.
Such exposure was rewarded.
“You always hope for the best when you put something out and try to make the best music you can make but you can't control what happens after that. It was a great, wonderful surprise.”
Stapleton wasn't seeking a record deal but one lunch meeting quickly changed his mind.
“Brian Wright came to me in A&R at Universal ,” Stapleton recalled.
“We had lunch. We've been friends for a long time, and I thought we were just having lunch. He said, ‘Hey man, I want you to do a country record.'
“They asked me, and I said yes. That was pretty much the short story. Actually, I said, ‘let me go ask my wife.'”
He did and Morgane quickly gave her consent.
More than a decade ago Stapleton's wife - then Morgane Hayes - was signed to Arista Nashville .
Though she had success as a songwriter with Don't Forget To Remember Me for Carrie Underwood and You Ain't Right for LeAnn Rimes she hasn't released an album.
“She wouldn't be out here doing this if it weren't for me,” Stapleton said.
“She doesn't have the compulsion to do it like I do. She helps me with my compulsion. She always pushes me to be the best that I can be.”
DADDY DOESN'T PRAY ANYMORE
“Today I followed daddy down to church/ and listened to the preacher read God's word/ we sang his favourite hymn but daddy didn't make a sound/ this afternoon we'll lay him in the ground/ but daddy doesn't pray anymore/ I guess he's finally walking with the Lord/ he used to fold his hands and bow his head down to the floor/ but daddy doesn't pray anymore.” - Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore - Chris Stapleton.
“That's important to have in music and songs in general. We don't have enough of that. Sometimes we just want to check boxes as songwriters. People like songs about this and this and this. It's real easy to get in box-checking mode when you're writing songs.”
He says the song would never be viewed as commercial.
“I wrote that song in 2005 and then it meant something different to me,” he recalled.
“To me it was just a song that came off of an idea, when my father actually did pass away, that became the time to sing that song.”
The concept came when Stapleton visited his parents for a holiday.
He says his dad was a very religious man who said grace at every meal. One particular time, though, he didn't, and it struck Stapleton.
Soon after, the phrase Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore was stuck in his head.
“I went back to Nashville and wrote that song and just filed it,” he says.
“We pulled it back out for this album. It was the right time to do it. Just like everything else, there's a right time for everything, and it was the time to do that. It wouldn't have made sense for me to do anything with it in 2005. It wouldn't have meant as much.
"It is in fact a weeper. If you've lost a parent or somebody that was instrumental in trying to lead you down the right path or raise you up in the world, that one will get you."
TRAVELLER SONG SELECTION
“There are days that I can walk around like I'm alright/ and I pretend to wear a smile on my face/ and I could keep the pain from coming out of my eyes/ but sometimes, sometimes, sometimes I cry/ when I can't do nothing else.” - Sometimes I Cry - Chris Stapleton-Clint Ingersoll.
Sometimes I Cry is a standout on Traveller but could have had a different life.
It was originally intended for a previous album that was shelved after the initial single faltered.
“Changeovers happen and people have opinions,” Stapleton said of Traveller.
“All I really wanted out of it was to be out.
“I don't know that my voice ever makes sense anywhere, necessarily. I would sing bluegrass music and I don't fit in there; I would sing rock music and I'm probably a little too hillbilly for that. And country I'm too much rock 'n' roll for that sometimes.”
Despite newfound adulation from the Nashville establishment Stapleton is still blazing his own trail.
“I didn't used to be O.K. with it,” he said.
“Everybody gets through a phase where it's, ‘ah, if I could just sound just like Vince Gill.' Then you figure out that you have your own voice, whether you like it or not, and that's what you should stick with.”
Stapleton credits wife Morgane and Brian Wright for helping song selection for Traveller.
“If you like those songs, for the most part you can thank my wife,” Stapleton confessed.
“She is my in-house sounding board for all things. She cut and culled this list for the most part with an assist from Brian, a great A&R guy from Universal. He and I have known each other more than a decade and he would bring some to me like the very personal The Devil Named Music.
“That was one that wasn't even on the radar and he said that I should really consider cutting that one. For me, it's one of my favourite things on the record now. Between the two of them, they selected the bulk of the songs. It was done there and then we all got in a room together and talked about it. There was a longer list, of course.
“I wrote the opening of the song as we drove all night to Billings , Montana . I was in the Steeldrivers and we were driving from Wyoming . The song is pretty autobiographical. I was on the road playing bluegrass, and we were out there hitting it hard as hard as we could, trying to matter. A lot of the song is about that."
“You're as smooth as Tennessee whiskey/ you're as sweet as strawberry wine/ you're as warm as a glass of brandy/ and honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time.” - Tennessee Whiskey - Dean Dillon-Linda Hargrove.
He also honours George Jones with a bluesy cover of the Possum's 1983 hit Tennessee Whiskey, also cut by veteran outlaw David Allan Coe and penned by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove.
"The guys in the band and I were in Charlottesville , Virginia , waiting to set up microphones and started playing in that groove,” Stapleton recalled.
“I just was really enjoying it and started singing Tennessee Whiskey on top of it, trying to make it something new. We liked it so much, we played it that night and every night since. When we started to record, we used it as a warm-up song. Dave said, 'We need to do that right now.' That's what you hear."
“There's things on the record that weren't even on that first list. Tennessee Whiskey wasn't originally on the list. It wasn't on the list to do covers. It just kind of happened that way with the comfort zone of what we were doing in the studio, so we recorded them.
“We kind of whittled it down ever further. There's things on the record that weren't even on that first list. Tennessee Whiskey wasn't originally on the list. It wasn't on the list to do covers. It just kind of happened that way with the comfort zone of what we were doing in the studio, so we recorded them.”
Stapleton also revamped Don Sampson penned Charlie Daniels hit Was It 26.
MORGANE BOUGHT A JEEP
“I'm just a traveller on this earth/ sure as my heart's behind the pocket of my shirt/ I'll just keep rolling till I'm in the dirt/ cause I'm a traveller, oh, I'm a traveller/ I couldn't tell you honey, I don't know/ where I'm going but I've got to go/ cause every turn reveals some other road/ and I'm a traveller, oh, I'm a traveller.” - Traveller - Chris Stapleton.
The concept of the album was born from purchase of a 1979 Jeep Cherokee and cross country trip home filmed on video.
“I had made a whole other record that we had abandoned,” Stapleton revealed after debut single What Are You Listening To was ignored by radio.
“After my dad passed away in 2013 I took a trip to the desert, really rebooting and trying to figure out what I was supposed to do.
Morgane bought him the Jeep in Phoenix , Arizona , and they flew out there and decided to drive it back.
Stapleton admits it was a “crazy thing to do,” as the Jeep was 36 years old.
During their drive, the song that would become the title track for the record Traveller came to him as Morgane was sleeping beside him in the car.
“I was thinking about life and how we all pass through it,” he recalled.
“It started at lyric one, so I'm sitting there driving and holding my phone from the first word to the end, and that was the writing of the song.”
The last song written for the album became the first track on the release.
So the album concept was born from the Jeep purchase and drive across the country.
“I don't know if it was born at that moment. It's easy to say that it was a concept record and I don't think it was that way. I think it was a song that was written along the way in a moment of head-clearing,” Stapleton explained.
“I had a single die on the radio and my father die all in the span of a month. My wife, knowing what I need most of the time before I do, bought me an old Jeep. She knows I love old cars and hadn't had one in a long time. We flew out to outside Phoenix and drove it home. We decided to film it along the way, some of the trip, just to be doing it. A lot of people, when we told them what we were doing, said, ‘you're doing what?”
“They thought we were crazy. And we probably were. I had to warn my wife that most the time people ship these kind of things home, because at some point or another, it's just going to stop.”
Stapleton joked it could have been a short video.
“Yes, it could have been very short documentation of a short trip,” Chris admitted.
“It would have been of me renting a tow truck and towing it home. It really didn't turn out that way. It turned out to be exactly what it needed to be, just as all things do, I think.
“I wrote that song along the way. We stopped in Dallas and that was really the only song-writing that went on while we were out there. That became a song that was a song on a list. It was also a song that I liked a lot because it was very in the moment that I was in, just like a lot of things we've been talking about. I enjoy things that are in moments like that. I think it's important to follow that sometimes, even if it doesn't make any sense to anybody but you.
The trip inspired a batch of new originals for the disc.
“There was definitely a switch that flipped,” Stapleton recalled.
“It was a conscious decision on my part. I blame myself for this. I think I didn't put enough of my own influence on those early things on the regrouping process. I wasn't playing guitar on What Are You Listening To which is the only thing I've ever recorded that I wasn't playing on. It kind of drove me crazy about that.
“I was doing what I thought was the right thing to do in the moment. I did what I thought made sense in the moment. In retrospect, if it had worked out, it wouldn't have led to this record. To me, it's all part of one whole again. The record I made previous to this one was one I made a long time ago under the same deal before the merger between Capitol and Universal. It kind of got lost in the mix a little bit. At that point, you're kind of lucky to be around. We all know how that goes. Through all of that, it got us to the point we are now and for me, that was all worth it.”
WHEN THE STARS COME OUT
“I was looking for a change of scene/ you were looking at a magazine/ it was red carpets and limousines/ and the grass seemed so much greener/ all we wanted was to get there fast/ so, we packed up everything we had/ running on hope and a tank of gas/ like dreams ain't just for dreamers/ we couldn't wait to leave that life behind/ trying to find salvation in that city limit sign.” - When The Stars Come Out - Chris Stapleton-Dan Wilson.
Stapleton's support force for the record has expanded rapidly.
“It's great. Obviously, it's great,” Chris explained.
“There are a lot of wheels turning to make sure people are aware of this record. There's literally a hundred people in the building. We have great PR folks really helping us raise awareness. It's something I've really never had before. I've never had those advantages artistically. Most of what I've done has been independent type work, from a record perspective. We hired some PR people briefly in the Steeldrivers . We'd hold back a piece of our record budget for that. Our $20,000 record budget didn't go far.”
This time the promo budget mushroomed.
“And that's where Universal has been such a good partner,” Stapleton conceded.
“We've been able to take this and go. I went to them with this crazy idea that I just wanted to make a record. I just wanted to get a whole record out. That's not their natural way of doing things. Normally, you put a single out for 52 weeks and when you think it's at its peak, you put a record out. Or even an EP out. They were kind enough to indulge me a little bit and it's working out for us so far. If it hadn't, maybe not. But in that, all the folks in Universal have been great. We've made efforts to try and find the audience for this thing. We've found who it is and where they are. And somewhere in the middle of this thing, we're finding them. It's just done in this new strange path for what this town is used to doing.”
THE DEVIL NAMED MUSIC
“We drove all night to Billings, Montana/ flew into Utah, slept there all day/ I can't remember stopping in Denver/ yeah, I live my illusion that somebody needs me to play/ sometimes I'm drunk, sometimes I'm stoned/ and yes, I get tired of being alone/ I miss my son/ I miss my wife/ but the devil named music is taking my life.” - The Devil Named Music - Chris Stapleton.
Stapleton is realistic about his future success.
“I don't have a crystal ball, unfortunately, I wish I did,” Stapleton revealed.
“Something I learned making this record, if you really just concentrate on making the best music that you know how to make, all the other things will find a way to present themselves because people want to help you. That's been the thing I've learned the most during this process. It's how people are willing - not just the people that have a vested interest in helping me - in helping. Other artists. Other people. They just want to help. That's been the biggest lesson with me. Hopefully, if you just do the best work you can do, you'll end up with that. That's what I've ended up with on this record. I'm thankful for that. Maybe it will hold up over time, maybe it won't. I'll certainly take it right now.”
And the artist's definition of country music?
“What is country music to me? That is a very large and broad question,” Stapleton says.
“That's such a hard question. Country music to me is music that remembers where it comes from. It used to be called hillbilly music back in the day. It was music that was made my country people. It was by country people and for country people if you want to sound patriotic about it. That's kind of what it is for me. Whatever the music ends up being, if it comes from someone who has those country life experiences and it is made for people with the same life experiences, that's what it is. I think that's the allure to it for anyone that listens to country music, whatever your definition of country music is. That's what makes it authentic in any form. It comes from a real place for whoever is playing it and whoever is listening to it.”