Chris Stapleton Is Not a Country-Music Outsider

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Photo: Daniel Boczarski/Redferns

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 of 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 of 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 of 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 often 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 of sessions with his go-to producer Dave Cobb, both albums are an eclectic mix, his latest offering 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 of endless touring. Next year he returns to the road for a run of shows that includes an opening gig for the Eagles. Stapleton says that despite the time off, 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 of 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 of it was all recorded — Volume 1 and Volume 2 — in one swath. And then I’m a fan of 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 of what I used to like when I was a kid. Back then there were a lot of 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 off 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 of.
It is. It tells me, if you want to read into it from a business sense, that there’s still some discovery of 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 of longevity and have a record just hanging around like that. But we’ll take it. All day long. It’s the foundation of a lot of what we’re getting to do these days. So I’m grateful for it.

How did your notoriety change in the wake of the 2015 CMA Awards?
I’ve spent a lot of 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 of the crowds and the perception of what we were doing. Yeah, it was felt. Absolutely. Immediately.

Speaking of people’s perception, how do you feel when people pit your music against more pop-leaning country?
I’m very much a product of and a part of 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 of ways. I still do that when I have a moment. But I also write songs for other people in other genres of music and I’ve played other genres of 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 of 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 of 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 of it does. But the same could be said of 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 of us. Some semblance of uniqueness. I really get tired of people wanting to make something larger of 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 of what you might think of 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 of art records and a lot of art records have inspired a lot of commerce. I grow weary of the need for there to be a division. I know plenty of 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 related. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with liking different kinds of music.

Everyone needs to stake his claim.
It’s horrible. I’m not trying to get political in any way but I really don’t understand it.

Your live show though does feel quite different than those of the other most popular country artists. There’s a real fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants mentality to it.
You can come to two shows in a row and you’ll be lucky if we even play the same songs. You’re probably going to see something or hear something different. That’s what I love about live music. Before I make this statement I am in no way am judging anybody that does this, but we don’t use any tracks. We don’t do anything like that. It’s just us playing live music. No clicks. No nothing. That’s what you’re getting every night when we play onstage for better or worse [laughs]. And sometimes that leads to beautiful things. That’s the fun of music in a live setting for me. When I go watch bands I like to hear people stepping out and be having fun and letting me know that they’re in it. That’s where I like to be playing live. If that happens to grow a fan base, then so be it.

It’s no secret you have a deep well of unreleased songs. I’ve heard it nears the thousands. Is it just that gut instinct then of whether it feels like the timing is right to record a particular song?
That’s very much how I feel about it. It’s nice to let songs age a bit. You write something and you may think you wrote the greatest song in the world that day. But it’s a little harder to let the microscope sit on it for five, eight, ten years and then listen to it again and go, “Hey, I still want to sing this. I still think it’s good. I still want to play it.” That’s a little more scrutiny than writing something in the moment. Do I have a stockpile of songs? Absolutely. The converse of that though is that I’ve been touring pretty heavy lately and I haven’t had time to do much writing. So at some point I’m going to be diving in and writing some new songs and I’m probably going to want to share some of those songs. But I find that when I’m out touring it’s not the best environment for me to write. I need to be still to write. So if there’s ever a time when it seems like I’m doing nothing it’s probably when I’m writing.

It’s been a few years now since you’ve emerged as a big-time solo artist. Has time leavened any of the oddity of suddenly being famous after years of largely anonymous songwriting?
It’s completely odd. I spent 35 years of my life not with any vague notion of being famous. I knew some people who had some of that and I know some guys that have a circus around them at all times and that’s certainly not me. Now as far as does it effect of what I’m trying to do musically or anything like that? No, that’s never even a thought. Sure, it has effects on your daily life. There’s some slight loss of privacy and you have to assume when you go out in the world somebody is going to be looking at you or taking pictures or something. And that’s okay. That’s part of it. That’s part of the gig.

Hey, if that’s the only downside to playing music for a living that’s not such a bad thing.
No, it’s definitely not. But I’ll be honest: I’m a pretty scary-looking dude so people either don’t approach me or they approach nicely.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chris Stapleton Is Not a Country-Music Outsider