**Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted by Ken Morton Jr. He is a distinguished country music writer, and the Owner/Editor of That Nashville Sound.
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It isn’t often that a musician achieves an illustrious 15-year career that includes five number one hits, Grammy Award nominations, feature film contributions, producer credits and the respect of his peers before he ever releases his first solo album. But Chris Stapleton isn’t your average musician. The near-universal critical acclaim that has been heaped upon his debut album Traveller has been nothing short of amazing.
With a ZZ Top look-alike beard, Stapleton doesn’t look like your average country artist. With a booming voice that Rolling Stone’s Jon Caramanica called “liquor-thick and three-drinks limber,” he doesn’t sound like your average country artist. And with an incredible songwriting sensibility that draws as much inspiration from blues and soul as it does from country in his birthplace of Kentucky, his music doesn’t even sound like the average country artist—which is one of the reasons, for nearly everyone who listens, it stands out as a superior piece of art.
His songwriting credits span all genres and include artists like Adele, George Strait, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker, Josh Turner, and Jason Aldean. His work with the The SteelDrivers gave the band nearly unprecedented success in bluegrass circles. He even dabbled with some southern rock with a project under The Jompson Brothers.
But it is Traveller that has brought the spotlight on Chris Stapleton as a solo artist. Saving Country Music was lucky enough to catch him in between shows to talk about the new album and some of the inspiration behind it.
I am a very big SteelDrivers fan and own your Jompson Brothers work as well. Now with your solo work, are we finally seeing the true Chris Stapleton or is there an equal part of you in all of those projects?
I think all of them. I think all of them were me at the time they were being made. There’s always going to be a spot that you’re at musically or guys that are around you influencing you at that specific time. It’s just going to happen. And this particular record just so happens to be what’s going on around me right now.
Is it an evolution as an artist or is more you exploring different genres and scratching that particular musical itch you might have at that particular time?
It’s both, I think. The word evolution is a strong thing to imply some major change. I don’t know, maybe I don’t take myself that seriously. Certainly, you’re always striving to be better at what you do. You want to always get better playing and writing and all those things. Sometimes that’s just a matter of perspective and comfort in your own skin. I certainly think that’s something we got into with a good groove on this record with my playing and the guys around me playing. It was all those things. It was probably one of my most comfortable recording experiences. If there’s an evolution, it’s probably that.
You have this immense songwriting catalog. How and why did you go about selecting this particular group of songs for this project?
If you like those songs, for the most part you can thank my wife. 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 Wright, a great A&R guy from Universal. He and I have known each other for more than a decade and he would bring some to me, like “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 favorite 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. 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.
The concept of the album was supposedly born from a Jeep purchase and a drive across the country. Tell me what that trip meant and how it influenced the album.
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.
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 some of 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.
It could have been a short video.
Yes, it could have been very short documentation of a short trip. 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 songwriting 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.
I totally get that. I know there was an entire album that had been recorded previously with the first single that went out, then a subsequent regrouping or restart. Was there a conscious decision to go a different direction or did the new music created provide or create that direction?
There was definitely a switch that flipped. 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.
There’s been an outpouring of critical acclaim on this project. I’m interested to know, from an artist’s perspective, how all of that soaks in. It’s your art, it’s your baby, what are those feelings when the media falls in love with what you’ve created?
It’s great. Obviously, it’s great. 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. (laughter)
This deal stretches that just a bit farther.
It does. And that’s where Universal has been such a good partner. 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.
If you look in your crystal ball, will this new path allow you similar indulgements with projects down the road, do you think?
I don’t have a crystal ball, unfortunately. I wish I did. 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.
I’ve got one last question for you, and it’s meant as open-ended as you’d like to make it. What is country music to Chris Stapleton?
What is country music to me? That is a very large and broad question. 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.