Chris Stapleton is far from new to the country music scene. He’s acclaimed for his bluegrass band The SteelDrivers and has written numerous hit songs for other artists, including Kenny Chesney’s “Never Wanted Nothing More,” and Darius Rucker’s “Come Back Song.” His writing and background vocals can be heard on recent releases such Gary Allan’s “Hangover Tonight” and Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn.” He’s even made himself fans like Justin Timberlake.
With Traveller, Stapleton continues to prove what didn’t need proving: he’s incredible.
The album, produced by Brent Cobb (Sturgill Simpson’s acclaimed Metamodern Sounds in Country Music), is musky and raw, howling and plaintive – it’s a cabin in the winter, simultaneously the biting, icy winds and the warm hearth inside. At times, like on “Parachute,” it jaunts along, a wailing uptempo vocal on a bed of caffeinated electrics. The lyrics of the chorus could spell vulnerability, but Stapleton is resolute, piercing through the emotion with conviction. “You only need a roof when it’s raining / you only need a fire when it’s cold / you only need a drink when the whiskey is the only thing that you have left to hold,” he sings. It’s a rare treat in today’s release world to find an uptempo track that also leans on lyrical brilliance, but Stapleton does so with ease (compare also with Rhett’s “Crash and Burn”).
And though Stapleton sings in the face of sadness in “Parachute,” he’s not afraid to let it best him either. “Whiskey and You,” which follows on the track listing, was originally recorded by Tim McGraw; for Traveller, he stripped it to his voice and a guitar, recording with just one microphone.
“We tried a couple different ways to record that song,” he told us. “It’s a song that I played for a long time at songwriter rounds, and in different places, a song that people who came to watch me play shows wanted me to play, but there wasn’t a recorded version anywhere for anybody to have. So when we got down to the final mixing process of the entire record, that song hadn’t made it yet, and I said, ‘You know what guys, let’s go throw up a microphone.’ And so that’s just me and a guitar on the microphone. That’s kind of the way it was originally, and I felt like it was probably the way that it should live on a record.”
It’s a beautiful delivery of the song, and allows the lyric and vocal to lead in a way that is both chilling and humbling. “There’s a bottle on the dresser by your ring / And it’s empty, right now I don’t feel a thing / I’ll be hurting when I wake up on the floor / I’ll be over it by noon / That’s the difference between whiskey and you,” Stapleton sings, at time the lyric barely a breath. He raises his voice only briefly, to query: “one’s a devil, one keeps driving me insane / at times I wonder, oh if they ain’t both the same.”
In between those two emotional extremes, Stapleton offers a wealth of writing and vocal talent on the album. “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” lies heavily on the “Whiskey and You” side, stripped bare in the production to focus on the strength of the lyric.
“I wrote this song in my girlfriend’s (now wife) apartment,” he says. “It took about ten minutes. I had the idea for maybe a week before. I had been back to east KY to visit my parents and had noticed my Dad didn’t say grace at the dinner table, which he had done without fail every meal my entire life. Maybe it was a momentary lapse of faith or maybe he was just tired. Whichever it was, it gave me the thought, “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore.” For the sake of the song, I thought it was more powerful image if the reason Daddy didn’t pray was that he had passed away. When my Dad passed away in October of 2013 this song came to mean a great deal more to me. I got to hear him say grace many times after I wrote this song. I miss his voice and those words.”
Aside from his own songs, Stapleton recorded two covers on the album, Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove’s “Tennessee Whiskey” and Don Sampson’s “Was It 26.” “Really, those covers are songs that I’m a fan of in general, those are songs that I’ve always sung or loved, that decided to make their way into the room,” he told us. “We didn’t exactly set out with plans to record those songs, they just kind of happened in the moment and we felt to include them. As a songwriter, I think you get your education from other people’s songs. You’re certainly influenced by them, and I don’t know any songwriters who don’t point to, ‘Man, I really wish I could write a song like ‘insert song.” Both of these songs are certainly songs that I’ve done that with for many years, have been sort of standards to me, examples of how you should try to write a song. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a songwriter but also being a fan of other songwriters and songs. In fact, I think it’s important that you do. I think that’s important to pay homage to.”
Other album highlights include the wailing “Sometimes I Cry” and the troubled “The Devil Named Music.” Though not all moments are wow-inspiring, the record as a whole is a force, and Stapleton’s soulful vocals and prowess with finding the perfect thing to say resonate throughout.
Check out Traveller below, and grab it on iTunes.