Chris Stapleton is the man behind the curtain in country music. The wizard of Nashville has garnered quite a share of radio hits, but all through the voices of other musicians. As a songwriter for George Strait, Luke Bryan, Darius Rucker, Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean, Adele, and an estimated 170-plus others, Stapleton has had his name in the business for a while, but never on the front of an album.
The journey to songwriting prowess began in 2001 when Stapleton began making the trek from his home in eastern Kentucky to Music City to meet with contacts in the industry. Nashville offered Stapleton an outlet for his lyrical talent, and it became a comfortable home for the bearded mountaineer. “I grew up in the hills, listening to outlaw country with my dad, but Nashville’s home to me now,” says Stapleton.
His early childhood influences included a bevy of R&B artists like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding, alongside country favorites like Brooks & Dunn. What stood out to Stapleton from these artists was their ability to encapsulate something raw, genuine, and natural. “I don’t look for my inspiration through contemporaries, not to insult contemporary artists,” he says.
When he first began his songwriting journey, Stapleton believed his musical talent resided in his ability to construct stories through lyrics, however, there was something else waiting to be discovered: a voice. In 2008, Stapleton started singing for bluegrass group the SteelDrivers. The band racked up three Grammy Awards until 2010 when Stapleton left the band to focus on his family and eventually break out with a solo career.
On his recent release, Traveller, Stapleton’s vocals are as smooth as a fine Tennessee whiskey, a fact that’s underlined by song titles like, “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Whiskey and You.” Tracks like “Traveller” vividly demonstrate the songwriter’s knack for creating music meant for tapping your feet along to, while a slide guitar and the vocal harmonies on “Nobody to Blame” make it the kind of song you wish you could find on country radio. The grit-laced mix on the 14-song-strong collection puts Stapleton in the ranks with folks like Sturgill Simpson (the track “Might as Well Get Stoned” particularly reminds of us Simpson), who we’re all hoping will save the country music genre.
Between the Appalachian inspiration of the bluegrass ballad “More of You” and the emotive soulful screams in “Sometimes I Cry,” Stapleton proves himself a craftsman capable of serving up his very own tasty concoction, rather than simply hiding behind the scenes. “The songwriting process is not any different for me,” he says. “The only difference is now, I’m the one singing.”
Stapleton worked on Traveller under Mercury Records in Nashville’s RCA Studios, the same space in which Dolly Parton and Elvis have recorded, and the disc includes tracks that span the entirety of Stapleton’s songwriting career. There’s dark inner-workings and uplifting moments, but a story exists behind every song. “Everything on there represents moments in my life or someone I know,” Stapleton says. “You don’t always stay inspired. You try to find universal themes and things that are interesting — always be observing people, and use those things to the best of your ability.”
Stapleton may not have hit No. 1 yet on his own, like he has with “Love’s Gonna Make It Alright” recorded by George Strait and “Come Back Song” made popular by Darius Rucker. But with another album in the works and a national tour underway, for now it appears Stapleton is exactly where he wants to be. He says, “It’s nice to feel like you’re doing what you want to do.”