Chris Stapleton is one of those guys that has been around for long enough that, even if you don’t think you know his music, you probably do. As a songwriter, he’s had a bunch of cuts and a handful of hits, courtesy of artists like Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, and George Strait. As a band man, he spent some years in the SteelDrivers and some more years in the Jompson Brothers. Now, as a solo artist, Stapleton has debuted in the number two seat on the country album chart with Traveller, a set of “gritty narratives of grim determination and aching love, presented with courage and candor.” Stapleton’s soulfully rocking take on country music sidles up alongside Tim McGraw as naturally as it does Sturgill Simpson and Willie Nelson, carving out a middle ground that may well suit the mainstreamers, the upstarts, and the outlaws, alike.
Congratulations on your first week sales numbers. Very well done, sir.
Thank you very much. Nobody’s more surprised than I am! [Laughs]
[Laughs] And, congratulations, I guess, on being this year’s savior of country music. I’m sure Sturgill [Simpson] and Brandy [Clark] are happy to share that burden with you.
Yeah, I suppose so. [Laughs]
What goes through your mind when people hurl those things your way?
Certainly it’s nice when somebody says something like that, but it’s not anything you can take too seriously because you just make records and it’s not like you’re trying to do anything … I don’t know. [Laughs] It’s not anything that I try to think about too much because it’s just things people say.
Well, as a songwriter who straddles the contemporary/traditional divide in country, what’s the trick to that balancing act? Are you accessing different parts of your creativity depending on the job at hand?
Not necessarily. I don’t try to approach things any differently, songwriting-wise, regardless of what I’m doing. I try to write whatever the best thing is that I’m doing that day. If I’m working on a pop song, I’m working on a pop song to the best of my ability. If I’m working on a bluegrass song, it’s the same thing. They’re not really different parts of the brain. They may have different elements involved, musically, but I don’t think they’re all that different. It’s all blues-based art forms. It all stems from there and, if you keep that in mind, it doesn’t really change a whole lot.
You’ve had a lot of cuts. So, besides your own, whose voice do you think translates your songs the best? Is there someone out there you’d really love to sing one of your tunes?
Well, that’s a song-specific question. I think there’s always a marriage of singer and song that’s an important marriage. I couldn’t say that there’s one person that I think sings a song I wrote that I like better than another person who sings a song I wrote because it would be very song-based. When those things happen the right way, that’s what can elevate a song and make a song something special, if the right singer’s with that song. And vice versa. So, I don’t know that there’s one person I could go with. I don’t have a Jimmy Webb-Glen Campbell situation where I’m like, “Yeah, Glen Campbell sings my songs and that works every time.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. With Traveller, you worked with your band and Dave Cobb. Some producers would’ve forced your hand toward using session players. How important is it to let go of the search for technical perfection in favor of the soulfulness and authenticity that comes with using your guys?
I think there’s a thing that happens when you play with guys for a certain amount of time that you can’t replicate even with the “greatest players in the world.” If you don’t know each other and you don’t have a sense of each other, that takes time to develop. So I think, if you can get a band that is your band and at least the core of it are guys that you’re on the road playing shows with and you know on a personal level, it always becomes a better thing. That’s just me, personally. Other guys have other opinions of things, but that’s the way I prefer to do it. It’s more comfortable for me that way.
Do you road-test the songs before you go in the studio?
Not necessarily. Certainly, I’ve played them … some of them … [Laughs] in a rehearsal. But, no, I try not to think about it too much. We got down to a list of songs that we had to record, but all those songs didn’t make it and some songs that weren’t on the list wound up being recorded in the room because we didn’t approach an evening in the studio with anything other than, “Hey, we’re going to wait until the spirit moves us, then we’re going to play whatever song we feel like playing, at that point in time.” That was kind of the framework of how we recorded this record. We enjoyed it, being that kind of loose and casual. I think you can hear that, too.
It’s the same thing as the familiarity with the guys. It’s a different level of comfort in a recording space that you can get when you don’t have, “Alright, we have three hours and these are the songs we’re recording. You guys have never met each other or barely know each other. Let’s play and try to make some magic happen.” [Laughs] That’s a lot of pressure.
[Laughs] Cue the magic!
[Laughs] Yeah.
I feel like this record sits just about halfway between the SteelDrivers and the Jompson Brothers. Almost like you swung from one end to the other, then leveled back out. Is that what you were going for or is it more your natural resting place?
I don’t know that I’m ever going for one thing or another. I’m just going for trying to make whatever music feels like the right thing to do at the time. This is certainly where we are as a band and where I am, song-wise. It’s the music I wanted to make. Certainly all those things — the previous incarnations of music that I’ve made — those things are always going to be present in any music that I make, I think. And I think it’s easy, if you’ve heard those other things, to hear them in there, but maybe not necessarily if this was the first thing you heard.
I caught your first show at the Cannery Ballroom recently and several things occurred to me while watching you play. First was your relationship with your wife, Morgane. Your bond is so obvious because you don’t just look at each other; you look to each other. What’s it like having her own stage with you — center stage, even?
It’s always a fun thing. We lean on each other, not just on stage, but everywhere else. We’re kind of partners in every sense of the word.
She was making you drink water.
[Laughs] Yeah, well, she wasn’t making me drink water. She just knew I needed some water and was bringing it to me. She’s good for that, for sure — knowing what I need and helping me figure it out.
The second a-ha came during your whiskey trilogy. What’s the difference, in country music, between beer songs and whiskey songs? And what’s maybe the difference in their songwriters?
[Laughs] You know, I’ve never been asked that question. And I don’t know that there’s a difference, necessarily, in the songwriters other than one likes beer and one likes whiskey, maybe. I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it as being something that you would differentiate. But, I guess maybe there is. Maybe the whiskey songwriters are a little darker. The beer guys might have just a little more of the “Hey, let’s have a party” vibe. And the whiskey guys are lost in some kind of self-deprecation, I think.
[Laughs] That’s kind of what I came to. The beer guys are more from “bro country” and the whiskey guys are more traditionalists, it feels like.
I’ve never drawn that line, but I guess you could. [Laughs]
The third thought actually came from a friend: If that hat of yours could talk, what kind of stories would it tell?
You know, I don’t exactly know. I bought that hat off eBay. It’s from the 1970s and somebody had it in their closet. It was brand new, in somebody’s closet, never been worn. I had a hat something like it that Charlie 1 Horse made for me for the Grammys when I was in the SteelDrivers. I wound up giving that hat away to a soldier at a show one time, thinking I could have another one made. But they couldn’t — they lost the mold or something and couldn’t make another one. So this hat I have now, like I said, is one I found on eBay because I went without a hat for a while.
I didn’t even know I could wear a hat, for the longest time, until a friend of mine named Jimmy Stewart, who I wrote “Might As Well Get Stoned” with on the record … he always wore a cowboy hat. I was like, “Man, I just can’t wear cowboy hats.” He said, “That’s just because you haven’t found the right hat.” So, I’ll say to anybody ever looking to wear a hat, “Man, you just haven’t found the right hat.” It’s true. A hat’s kind of like a guitar or anything else. Once you find one that’s yours, it’s yours and you should stick with it.
[Laughs] Good advice. So, who knows … it’s going to tell a lot of tales of loneliness, just sitting in the closet for all those years.
Yeah, it probably spent 25 years in the closet. Somebody got it on a whim.
That’s so sad because it’s like a guitar not being played.
Absolutely … a guitar under a bed somewhere that’s a good one somebody got thinking they were gonna play it. They went on vacation to Arizona, bought a hat, came home with it, and were like, “Man, I can’t wear this hat!” [Laughs] So they stuck it in the closet for 25 or 30 years until it made its way to eBay.
It was waiting for you. It was your hat all along.
It was my hat all along. Absolutely.
This article originally appeared on the Bluegrass Situation.