For more than a decade, Chris Stapleton, like so many aspiring artists, was a cog in the Nashville machine. Signed to a publishing deal as a songwriter shortly after moving to town in 2001, Stapleton wrote songs for whatever artist might cut them. Kenny Chesney. Darius Rucker. Lee Ann Womack. Stapleton penned songs for all them. He even wrote a song for Thomas Rhett on the Alvin and the Chipmunks: A Road Chip soundtrack. “It would be a complete fabrication to say I’m from outside the system],” Stapleton says. “’Cause I’m not.”
And yet ever since breaking out with his debut solo album, 2015’s Traveller, a Grammy-winning, critically adored LP that’s remained on the charts for 134 weeks and sold more than 2 million albums, he’s been viewed as exactly that. To many, Stapleton is the vintage country-music preservationist Nashville loves to tout but rarely rewards. To his most ardent supporters he’s that ever-elusive trend-bucking country artist who has the balls to do as he pleases, never kowtows to mainstream country radio and, in the process, lends the genre serious artistic credibility.
Why is Stapleton the man for the job? Perhaps with his scraggly beard he’s a throwback to the ’70s outlaw types like Merle and Waylon and Willie. Or maybe with “Tennessee Whiskey” being one his biggest hits to date — the song he covered with fiery force alongside pal Justin Timberlake at the 2015 Country Music Awards — it makes him a disciple its creator, the legendary George Jones.
But as the 39-year-old Kentucky native sees it, he’s no different than any other country musician working to get by in Music City. As he’s ten compelled to do several times a day, he simply writes songs — soulful, bluesy, and carefully measured ones that showcase his equal-parts grizzled, gnarly, and plaintive voice — and hopes they connect with an audience once he takes them on the road with his longtime band. With so many songs at his disposal, this year he decided to releases two albums: spring’s From a Room: Volume 1, nominated for the Best Country Album Grammy, and Volume 2, its companion released last week. Principally culled from a single set sessions with his go-to producer Dave Cobb, both albums are an eclectic mix, his latest fering again veering from searing rockers (“Midnight Train to Memphis”) to reflective ballads (“Nobody’s Lonely Tonight”).
When we speak, Stapleton is enjoying a rare break from nearly three years endless touring. Next year he returns to the road for a run shows that includes an opening gig for the Eagles. Stapleton says that despite the time f, he’s hardly the type to remain still. “I’m never really fully shut down,” he says. “But it’s good to change the pace.”
Why two albums in a single year?
Well, the majority it was recorded all in one sitting. We filled in a few holes after the fact if there was something we missed and didn’t do the first round. But 90 percent it was all recorded — Volume 1 and Volume 2 — in one swath. And then I’m a fan the listening experience with vinyl. And even though by modern standards these albums at nine songs each] are on the short end, they’re more the length what I used to like when I was a kid. Back then there were a lot nine-song records mainly just cause you’d have 30 minutes to be optimized on a vinyl. So there’s all these things that go into it. And then we felt like we couldn’t fire anything f the island to cut it down in a sense to one record. It felt more like two. So Dave Cobb brought it up: “Hey, why don’t we put out two?” And everybody just looked at each other and said, “Sure, let’s ask the label if they’ll let us?”
Traveller has been on the country charts for nearly three years straight. You’ve previously said you’re hardly concerned with commercial success but that’s unheard .
It is. It tells me, if you want to read into it from a business sense, that there’s still some discovery it going on. Which is great for us. But yeah, who could possibly expect that? You can’t dissect it like, What are all the ingredients making this happen? Because it’s one thing to have moments where you hit a lick and you’re like “Okay, cool. This is a big week!” But it’s a whole other thing to have that kind longevity and have a record just hanging around like that. But we’ll take it. All day long. It’s the foundation a lot what we’re getting to do these days. So I’m grateful for it.
How did your notoriety change in the wake the 2015 CMA Awards?
I’ve spent a lot my time just songwriting and building and getting my touring chops and trying to do things I think are musical. I equate it to building a fire. And then the CMA night we won those awards and we had the performance and, very much in that sense, overnight things were very different. We could see that both in the size the crowds and the perception what we were doing. Yeah, it was felt. Absolutely. Immediately.
Speaking people’s perception, how do you feel when people pit your music against more pop-leaning country?
I’m very much a product and a part Nashville. That’s where I’ve been writing songs for many years at a publishing company and writing commercial country music and that was my job for many years and still is in a lot ways. I still do that when I have a moment. But I also write songs for other people in other genres music and I’ve played other genres music. So to say I’m in any way removed from Nashville I think would be a misstep.
It’s hard to deny that artists like you or Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson or Anderson East, just to name a few, are making music that feels out step with what you typically expect from country radio.
Do I feel like what I’m doing or maybe some other guys are doing, we’re outliers the establishment? I can’t speak to what other guys feel about it but it’s just music, man. Whatever list you want to go through with mainstream country artists, I’ve probably written songs for or toured with them. Now does what I do sound different than what some people are doing in “mainstream country?” Yeah, some it does. But the same could be said what I’m doing and what Jason Isbell’s doing. Or what I’m doing and what Anderson’s doing. That’s just artistry and those are the things people hopefully gravitate towards for any us. Some semblance uniqueness. I really get tired people wanting to make something larger it like there’s some grand battle going on. There’s not.
I just find it an interesting and ongoing – if not entirely correct – narrative.
I don’t think you’re trying to do that here. I’m just saying.
I suppose, for better or worse, people feel the need to slot artists into categories.
Touring is not easy despite what some people might think. So anybody that can go out and find an audience and play music every night regardless what you might think their music is doing something right. It doesn’t all have to be one thing and I hate when people can’t see that. Commerce has paid for a lot art records and a lot art records have inspired a lot commerce. I grow weary the need for there to be a division. I know plenty people that might like Michael Jackson but they also might like Metallica. I say that because I’m just trying to find things that are opposing forces but definitely aren’t