Country Superstar Chris Stapleton's Still Got the Blues
The newly-minted country hero gets personal following his clean sweep of the Country Music Awards.
Photos courtesy of Chris Stapleton
It’s hard to describe Chris Stapleton without pointing out just how different he is from everything that’s out there in country right now. It's kind of a bummer, too, because that puts the veteran songwriter in an awkward position; he's seen as this sort of "anti-bro country" artist when, as it turns out, he’s written a lot of songs for people like Luke Bryan, Dierks Bently, and Josh Turner that many would say fall squarely within the bro country camp. Be that as it may, his sound, mostly influenced by the blues, is anything but bro.
Stapleton has been in the game for years, and it certainly shows on his latest record, Traveller. Comprised of songs written over the last 12 or 13 years of his career (and one incredible cover of David Allan Coe’s “Tennessee Whiskey”), it's a bluesy, dusty, down-home country album for a modern audience, similar to the sound and attitude of what Kacey Musgraves earned rave reviews for doing last year. And the most exciting part? People seem to actually be into it—really into it.
Whether or not his meteoric rise is a harbinger of the death of bro-country (or whether it signals that we never really had to worry about it in the first place) Stapleton's made it clear that he's one talent who's here to stay. I called him up at home in Nashville a short while after his explosive CMA debut (and clean sweep of awards honors, including Best New Artist, Male Vocalist, and Album of the Year) to talk about ups and downs, his friendship with Justin Timberlake, and why he loves the blues.
Noisey: How have things been going since the CMAs?
Chris Stapleton: Well, I didn’t imagine it could go any better than it’s going, but it’s going really well. We sold some records and the shows seem to be selling out really quick. That’s a new experience for us on the scale that we’re experiencing it. It’s all good things.
I know that you’ve been writing songs for a really long time. What made you want to take the leap from writing and being behind the scenes to making your own music?
Well, I’ve always been a touring musician in some capacity. I was in a bluegrass band that I made a couple records with called the Steel Drivers, and I was in a rock band called The Johnson Brothers. [They were] kind of an indie band. We played 70s kind of riff rock, real loud kind of stuff [laughs]. But country music was always home. I've been real fortunate to have cuts and a hit or two here or there in that world, and those things kind of allowed me to go out and explore the other side of music that interested me. One has always kind of fed the other for me. This was the first time they really kind of converged on each other and turned in to whatever this has turned into.
Brian Rhies, who's an A&R guy at Universal, he and I have been friends for 14, 15 years now. A couple of years ago, we went to lunch one day, and the lunch kind of ended with, “Hey man, you want to come over here and make a record?” and I went home and talked to my wife about it, and she said, “Well, why wouldn’t you?” and I went back in to Brian’s office to talk about it, and we decided we’d give it a shot. And that really is the short of it. That’s kind of what got us to the space of making a solo country record. The process for people is different, and I had a moment of clarity where this was gonna be whatIi wanted to do and I approached it like I might not make another record. It was a great experience all around.
Good, I hope for at least my sake you make another one, because this record is phenomenal. I feel like you really went back to country’s roots and sort of expanded on them, and you recreated them in a new way. What was inspiring you when you wrote this record?
The songs that are on this record span the entirety of my career as a songwriter, so there are songs on there that, at the time they were recorded, they were 12 or 13 years old, so some of them were from the first year I was in Nashville. We got to put songs together in that way, and that made the record feel a little different—basically it was like taking 15 years of songwriting, and cherry picking, and putting them on the record. The only song that was written after my father passed away was the song "Traveller," during a road trip in a Jeep my wife and I took to California, and that was really the only song that was kind of a newish song. And "Traveller" for me is not a literal thing, as much as it’s kind of a metaphor for life, and how we’re all kind of here in this finite amount of time, and we’re all just passing through; that wheel keeps on moving. I’ve always been a “walk through doors that are open, do the thing that seems like the right thing even if it doesn’t make sense to anybody else” kind of guy, musically or just personally. I’m terrible at it sometimes but sometimes I get it right, and I try to keep that in mind all the time.
We’re not all perfect.
[Laughs] Oh I don’t think anybody is but you try to pick a philosophy that you think might make your life easier, and stick with that but you know, everybody has their ways of doing things.
That’s very true. It seems like your album was such a stand out album this year because it sounds so different from anything else that you’ve written, or really, anything that’s going on in country music now. Was that intentional, or has that just always been the style that you like to play in?
You know, I spent a long time trying to get to what we got to sonically on this record. It was something I thought couldn’t be done anymore, and then I heard about half a song off of Sturgill Simpson’s last record, and I said, "Man, who is this guy making this record?" The sound of it just struck me up, like, "This guy knows how to make records sound like the old records that I like." And so, that lead me to [producer] Dave Cobb. I reached out, and he was kind enough to take a look, and it turned out we had a lot in common; I feel very much like Dave is someone who I’ve known for years and years, and am completely comfortable with musically. We can trust each other; he’s fearless, he wants to serve whatever your vision of this record is, and he's not trying to make you sound like something else. That’s a great way to make music and approach music.
This new record is very melancholy. Did you write from a place of sadness?
Everybody has up days and down days, and I made this record in a lot more serious headspace. I was borrowing from heroes, and trying to get back to the feeling that that kind of music gave me and still gives me when I hear it. Even though a lot of it’s sad or dark, I guess it’s some kind of morbid fascination with that that makes me feel good [laughs]. I can’t explain how that works; maybe when you sing songs about all types of woe, it helps you realize everything’s not that bad. Not that there’s anything wrong with a really happy, uptempo, just kind of fun swingin’ in the sunshine kind of song—we need those songs too—but it’s not what I gravitate to musically or as a listener. So, it only makes sense for me to live there.;
When you’re playing these songs on stage for people, do you find it difficult to revisit these themes over and over again, night after night? Do you feel like it takes a toll?
I love the songs, and I love this record as whole as a piece of work. And I love how much people love it, the people who come to shows really love this music and this record, and they’re invested in it in a way that elevates it from what it was before someone listened to it and loved it. And so, that lifts me up. When you hear someone singing words back to you, it’s a magical thing that you get to participate in. Not everybody gets to feel that as a musician, or somebody that makes records and it’s a really wonderful thing—better than any drug or anything like that, it’s just a high that can’t really be explained.
How much of your record, and your writing in general, is autobiographical?
That’s a hard question to answer because for me, I didn’t used to think that I would write things that were necessarily autobiographical; I would try to make up fictional characters, and over time, what I found out was that your personal stuff winds up in there whether you like it or not. Sometimes you don’t realize that until much much later, and you’re like, “Yeah i remember writing that song, I remember what was going on that day and why I was in that mood.” You realize that you can run from making personal music all you want to, and it’ll still wind up being personal. So that’s just the blessing and the curse of it.
Who are some of the artists that you’re really inspired by right now?
I love all kinds of different music, but I guess if I had to pick one right here in the moment, I’m on a Freddy King kick. He’s a blues artist, but it’s all the same thing. Country is just the blues played by hillbillies, and bluegrass is just the blues played with banjos, you know [laughs]. A lot of rock'n'roll is just the blues turned up real loud. It’s all the blues for me, and then you just change the instruments around and try to trick yourself into thinking it’s something different. Not that I’m any kind of expert on the blues, but I feel like a lot of American music in general comes from there. So, Freddy King has been in heavy, heavy rotation; I think he has maybe the best electric guitar i’ve ever heard in my life, and it’s moving. It’s moving to listen to Freddy King.
What’s your relationship with Justin Timberlake? How did you guys meet?
We met through a mutual friend who, a guy named Joe Fletcher who works for a record label, and Joe handed me his music and said “I thought you might like this." We wound up hanging out off of that ,and just kind of grew from there.
Do you think that maybe we’ll see some future Justin Timberlake, Chris Stapleton collaborations?
I never say no to anything. We always look for a reason to do something together, and the CMA’s kind of became that. But you know, we still talk to each other, it’s not like the CMA’s threw us together like a "Hi, shake your hand, nice to meet you" kind of thing it; it was a very natural thing for both of us to do, and that made it easy. He’s a singular talent that you just don’t get to work with all the time, and he’s an anomaly for sure, and a great person on top of that. So, both those things put together, I’m never going to say never. I can’t speak for him but, certainly, if he called and wanted to do something
What’s been the one moment for you that’s really stood out, where you stopped and were like, "Holy shit I can’t believe that this is happening"?
The CMA night had to be that night for me, and all of last year, really. We had a hugely successful release where we wound up being number two on the country charts, which was higher than I ever thought that we could be without a single. The CMA nod, it was—I didn’t expect to have any nominations but it kind of elevated into this thing, where I won one, then I won two, then I won three. All the guys in the band and the crew backstage, we’re all kind of losing our minds, like what in the world is going on, you know? It was a very unexpected and wonderfully moving night. We’ve worked so hard to get this record out there, I have to say that it was a highlight for sure.
Annalise Domenighini is more of a tequila kinda gal; she's on Twitter.