Well isn’t this cute. So the same guy that’s written songs for Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum, and wrote that terrible Thomas Rhett single “Crash and Burn” decides he wants to release a traditional country record. I guess we’re all supposed to just hop to attention and try to forget all the trash that he’s carved his name into with songwriting credits and sally forth, huh?
Actually, that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do.
The only thing I’m cheesed off about at this point is why this all took so damn long to see the light of day. What is going on in country music where a talent like Chris Stapleton is slaving away in the songwriter stables until age 37 before he gets his big break? I know he took the long way here, playing in the Steeldrivers and Southern rock bands and such, and it might not all be the Nashville machine’s fault his maturation process took so long. But Chris Stapleton’s astounding talent has been the worst kept secret on Music Row since what, 2010? Good Christ just get the man in the studio and let him shine.
It’s a national embarrassment that an artist, singer, and songwriter like Chris Stapleton is just now getting his feet onto the ground floor of stardom while the morons he’s penning super hits for are out there starring in their own prime time televised specials. Forget the reams and reams of songwriting credits Stapleton’s accrued for a second; this dude can sing the pants off of anyone else mainstream country music can shove out on stage right now. Anyone. And yet he’s been pulling desk duty for the last half dozen years. Thank goodness Mercury Nashville finally pulled their head out of their ass and got this record out.
The robust stable under the producership of Dave Cobb better beware. Jason Isbell over there polishing up all of his Americana Music Awards? Sturgill Simpson suckling off that sweet Atlantic Records teat? Those bastards better look alive, because Chris Stapleton just released a monster of a record that’s going to give them and everyone else a run for their money in 2015. Insert your favorite plaudits here: Chris Stapleton’s Traveller is a candidate for Album of the Year right out of the gate.
There’s not a slacker in this bunch folks. I mean, pretty much every song can make its own case for the best of the record, even the Charlie Daniels cover of “Was It 26,” even the final track “Sometimes I Cry” that was recorded completely live in Nashville’s historic Studio ‘A’ while a bunch of media and invited guests looked on and can be heard cheering at the end. “Traveller,” “Fire Away,” “Parachute,” “When The Stars Come Out,” “The Devil Named Music,” it’s all excellent stuff.
Even if you consciously try to hate this album, it’s still impossible. When I heard the familiar verses of “Tennessee Whiskey” made famous by George Jones and David Allan Coe, my eyes set to rolling, especially since Stapleton had tricked it up to have some kind of Motown vibe or something. Man I hate obvious covers to begin with, and then to screw with something so iconic really takes a lot of gall. But when Chris lights into the chorus, if you don’t get a tingle on the back of your neck or goosebumps or something, then you’re listening to it wrong brothers and sisters. This man has the voice of the Staple Singers stuck in his throat mixed with the soul of 1,000 sharecroppers. Holy shit I could sit around all day and just listen to this man sing slop and it would still sound heavenly after being purified through those pipes. And such range and control, from hushes to screams, there’s not a lyric he can’t turn divine.
When I got to the song “Outlaw State of Mind” I thought “Ah ha! Finally a song that is less than stellar!” Sorry, but it just felt a little clichÃ© to me. And just a little insider’s knowledge: If you’re feeling less than 100% about a song and decide you want to bury it in the track list, put it next to last like they did this one. But then as the song elongates into an extended instrumental, all of a sudden you find yourself sucked in, and it gave the album an unanticipated amorphous moment. Great dynamics on this record, taking you from the highs of “Parachute,” to the hushed moments of “Whiskey and You,” Traveller fills every mood of your musical appetite.
That brings us to the music itself, and let me tell you, for a guy who can veer more into the classic rock realm if you let him, there’s nothing else to label Traveller than traditional country. Yes there’s some soul here, and a little bit of Southern rock with a song like the spectacular “Parachute,” but this is the real country stuff traditional country fans clamor for. And Dave Cobb, who sometimes can dial too much into the vintage textures in records, gets the audio concoction just about perfect here, where it’s nice and warm and alive, but not filmy or faraway feeling. Mickey Raphael comes in with some harmonica, and the vibrating reeds sound like the harps of ethereal redneck angels.
Is there a little voice in the back of my head that says, “Okay, this guy just knows how to write songs so well that he can hoodwink us into believing he’s the real deal, just like he hookwinks the rest when he’s writing pop country material?” There used to be. But the thing about Chris Stapleton is you can’t fake the passion behind that voice. There is something there that is tied so deeply with inspiration, it’s unavoidable as anything but an original and heartfelt expression of authentic emotion.
All the years of anticipation, all the showcases and live shows where people walked away in shock or in tears, all the stutter steps as Nashville tried to figure out what the hell to do with him, it was all fulfilled, and it was all worth the wait for Traveller. The only question left now is, with the raw power of Chris Stapleton finally captured and out there on a wide release, will the Nashville machine once again drop the ball, or will they do his talent justice and push him as the preeminent country music artist of this generation that he is?
Two guns up!
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