It’s funny to think that Chris Stapleton’s forthcoming Traveller is considered to be his debut—that, categorically, he might be considered a “new artist.” The easy-talking, big-bearded songwriter plays with an unpretentious quality, a self-assuredness that you rarely see from someone releasing their first full-length. Then again, there are plenty of fairly obvious reasons as to why: His big, soulful voice has gained recognition with Grammy-nominated bluegrass band The Steeldrivers. He’s penned chart-topping singles for Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan and Darius Rucker and sung back-up vocals for Angaleena Presley and Dierks Bentley. Over 150 of his songs have been cut by other artists, from Adele to George Strait. But despite his name popping up in credits all over Nashville, Traveller is the first release with his name on the cover.
“I didn’t realize that there was even a job that you could have that was songwriting,” Stapleton says, looking back at his first few months traveling back and forth to Nashville from his home in Kentucky. “As soon as I found that out, I thought that sounded like the greatest job in the world and I needed to figure out how to do that.”
For a songwriter with a catalog the size of Stapleton’s, narrowing down songs for an LP was bound to be daunting. Still, Traveller feels like an fitting cross-section of Stapleton’s strengths, pulling from different time frames and even throwing in a couple of covers in “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Was It 26.”
“That’s a very in-the-moment kind of thing,” says Stapleton of narrowing down the track listing. “You need to feel some degree of connection to it: mainly you have to want to play it forever. If you don’t think you want to play it every night for the rest of your life, then that’s probably the one [song] that you should try to avoid.”
Several of the tracks on Traveller are road-tested favorites. “Whiskey and You” was cut by Tim McGraw on 2007’s Let It Go, but with scaled back production and Stapleton’s gruff vocals, it feels like a different song altogether. “Tennessee Whiskey” became a setlist staple when the band was grooving during soundcheck and Stapleton tried singing the country classic atop it. And one of the high points of live performances from Stapleton is the second track on the album, “Fire Away.”
“I wrote that song a long time ago, but the reason I play and sing that song is because my wife loves it and I love to sing it with her,” he says. “It’s one that she’s always fought to try to get me to do. Turns out, the first time we ever sang that thing live, she was so right. You can print that, I guess. She already knows she was so right.”
It’s true: “Fire Away” is the kind of song that gives you butterflies, with soaring harmonies and the lyrical duplicity of a narrator who’s resigned to what he loves, despite whatever obstacles or hardships might come along.
“It’s a song about commitment, and it’s a song about commitment on the not-so-pretty times,” he says. “My daughter would tell you it’s a song about a fire-breathing dragon. She’s 4. But that helps me love it as well. She listens to that song and hears something completely different. That’s the great thing about music: everybody can hear something different and find something different in a lyric or melody that moves them in a different way, even if you’re 4 years old.”
Equally as important as the songs themselves is the way they’re recorded, and Traveller relies on Stapleton and the band’s live chops for this as well. Most of the album was recorded live in just a couple of takes in Studio A, and the last song on the album, “Sometimes I Cry,” was recorded live in front of an audience of industry execs earlier this year, after the album had already been announced. At the helm of the recording process was co-producer Dave Cobb, lauded for his work with artists like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Jamey Johnson. Cobb has a knack for making records that show off the strengths of an artist without adding many bells and whistles, allowing the songs and the vocals to stand on their own.
“I’ve got to be honest: I heard about a half a song of last Sturgill Simpson record—I don’t even remember what song—but I loved the sound of it so much, and not necessarily the notes that were being played, but the sonic quality of it to the degree that I’m like, ‘Man, who did this record? I have to hunt this guy down,’” Stapleton says. “We met and talked and he had unlimited knowledge of me and some of the things that I’ve done. [We] found out we had a lot of musical tastes and addictions to guitars and gear in common—it was like a guy I’d known forever.”
An instant understanding in the studio resulted in a full-length that’s meticulously crafted without being calculated, employing twang and steel guitar alongside Southern rock sensibilities for an accessible sound that’s unique to Stapleton. Sealing and softening the album are harmonies from Stapleton’s wife, Morgane, an excellent artist and musician in her own right.
“This record probably wouldn’t exist without her,” says Stapleton. “A lot of the songs came off of a list she helped me compile and put in front of me. [She] has always been a good compass for [what] to do and what not to do. She always has [had] great musical taste. Poor taste in men, but excellent musical taste.”
Stapleton didn’t necessarily grow up in a home of musicians—his father was a coal miner, and his mother eventually worked with the health department—but his work and career path have been heavily influenced by his parents and upbringing in Kentucky.
“We were always encouraged to do things—whatever we wanted to do,” he says. “We were always told that we could be anything we wanted to be as long as we worked hard at it and kept our head down and believed in it.”
Stapleton started co-writing with reputable names in Nashville before he made the city his home, traveling back and forth before ultimately deciding to put down roots. With a month’s worth of living expenses, he made his way to Tennessee. It took him four days to land a writing contract.
“When I moved to town, I wrote two and three songs a day just trying to figure it out. I’d write with different people, I’d write by myself and every day I was just in it,” he says. “ I try to learn something or try to take something away from everybody that I write with because there are so many talented [songwriters] that have a different way of thinking—super, hyper-creative types. There’s always something to take away that you can kind of file away and put in the arsenal.”
It was over a decade later when he signed to Mercury Recordings as a solo artist, releasing his first single “What Are You Listening To” in July of 2013. Despite the song’s catchy, radio-friendly hook, warm feel and wistful lyrics, it peaked at 46 on the country charts before falling. It was later that year that Stapleton began the journey that would turn into “Traveller,” the title track and inspiration for the album, as he mourned the death of his father.
“My wife had the presence of mind to know that I needed to get out of town or have a little head-clearing space,” he says, and the pair flew out to Arizona and drove a newly-purchased 1979 Jeep Cherokee home across the country. “Along the way, I was thinking about life and how we’re all just kind of passing through it and wrote the song. It wasn’t always necessarily the clear cornerstone, but I think it certainly was a catalyst for a lot of the choices made.”
While moments like the melancholy “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” on Traveller may be tangibly inspired by his father, the inspiration is broader than a deft lyric or hardworking mantra.
“A lot of my earliest memories of music were listening to music in the car with my dad,” he says. “He listened to a lot of outlaw country, Merle Haggard and things like that and then old R&B: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin. Hopefully, some of this record reflects some of that and I think that he would have liked [it]. I like to think he would have, anyway.”