#43. Chris Stapleton: Traveller

Chris Stapleton might be a new name to music fans, but he’s been around for a while; before his debut album Traveller he was one of Nashville’s hottest songwriters. He’s had his hit songs recorded by massive stars like Tim McGraw, Darius Rucker, Luke Bryan, and even Adele. His reputation as a songwriter doesn’t mean he’s a stranger to the stage though. In the past Stapleton has been affiliated with several bands, including a two-year stint as lead singer of the bluegrass band The Steeldrivers. Traveller moves his career as a performing artist from bluegrass and southern rock to good old-fashioned country music.

Ironically, the breakout hit from Traveller wasn’t even written by the songwriter himself. “Tennessee Whiskey” is a cover of the classic David Allan Coe country song about the intoxicating love of a woman. Stapleton does the original record justice, but pushes the tempo closer to waltz territory and embellishes the vocals with a modernized, melismatic touch. He handles the Mariah Carey melismas dexterously, but unlike her he doesn’t use them as a crutch. On tracks like “More of You,” he understands that sometimes less is more when it comes to vocals.

On "More of You" and throughout the album, his rugged southern voice is complemented by pristine backing vocals from his wife, Morgane Stapleton. Not only does she have a fantastic voice in her own right, but she also offers some lovely harmonies that are among the more compositionally creative in country music (think of the high-caliber harmonic interplay between other great vocalist pairings like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings for a frame of reference). The couple’s vocals, alongside Chris Stapleton’s guitar playing, help breathe a level of endearment into his songs that gives Traveller some sturdy legs to stand on.

Perhaps the best example of strong vocals and guitar playing carrying an already captivating song is on album closer “Sometimes I Cry.” The bluesy southern rock jam builds to a climactic yet restrained electric guitar solo, followed by some chilling, anguished wails on the final chorus. It’s these kinds of performance chops, both instrumental and vocal, that have raked in almost unanimous praise for Traveller from the Nashville music scene. Beneath all that praise his peers have been showering him with, however, I can’t help but wonder if they’re secretly worried that Stapleton’s going to keep all his hit songs to himself from here on out. It’s a reasonable fear, considering he used to be such a reliable source for others’ chart-toppers. But quite frankly, after hearing Traveller I’m convinced that his songs are in the best hands when he performs them himself.