Chris Stapleton is someone who straddles, and thrives in, the stylistic and cultural divide between factions of contemporary country music.
He pens hit songs for the likes of Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley and Luke Bryan, whose version was up for Song of the Year at Sunday’s Academy of Country Music Awards. Though they are chart-topping, these songs are a cut above the bro-country radio fodder currently resulting from the Music Row songwriting sessions assembly line.
As a singer/songwriter his burly baritone gives testimony of a personal journeys that can hush a room or stir a crowd into a ruckus, as he does on this night.
Fresh from his television debut two nights’ before, making it onto the tightly restricted list of David Letterman’s musical guest before his retirement, Stapleton didn’t display airs as he worked his craft on the road.
You’d be forgiven for overlooking Stapleton as just a member of the audience. Slightly unkempt hair and beard frame his unassuming features. His weathered straw cowboy hat sports a front feather splay emanating from a center turquoise stone. The kind of hat that could come from Johnny Paycheck’s closet.
Stapleton might have an ear for what makes a current country hit, but they’re built from an appreciation and deep understanding of style and stories manifested in classic 70’s country gold. A variety largely abandoned by Music Row in pursuit of money that enjoying a resurgence with artists with greater aspirations, like Sturgill Simpson, Whitey Morgan, Sarah Gayle Meech, and Kelsey Waldon.
The Kentucky native resemble many of the crowd that break into hoots and hollers as he climbs on the small stage.
“Sounds like we’ve got some hillbillies here tonight.”
The band slowly build into the heart beat cadence of “Nobody to Blame,” from his anticipated “solo debut “Traveler.” It’s a swampy blue-collar mea-culpa of a man taking responsibility for a list of his wife’s retaliation in response to his unsaid transgressions.
This song is made even more poignant as his wife, the singer-songwriter Morgan Stapleton, sings harmony on the chorus his eyes locked with hers, where they remain most of the evening.
He payed tribute to Texas by performing songs from two of our state’s greatest performers; George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey” ( also on “Traveler.”) Stapleton’s version is a slower, more melancholy one showcasing his smooth croon and thrilling soaring vocals across the well-worn terrain of temptation, love and salvation.
A young woman requested from the front of the stage to hear the his version of Waylon Jenning’s “Amanda,” as it was her name as well. He graciously obliged, going off setlist to perform the song. The woman, now smiling and flushed, fanned her face as tears ran down her face.
Between shots of fan-bought whiskey (the sweetest kind) Stapleton also paid tribute to his Grammy-winning stint with the new-grass band The Steeldrivers by performing a revved up, honky-tonk version of “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey” and the southern soul murder ballad ‘If It Hadn’t Been For Love.’ famously covered by Adele on the UK version of her album ’21.’
Stapleton’s delivery of that , and all the songs tonight, make it easy to imagine what ran through Adele’s mind when she first heard that song. “That voice!” And she knows a thing or two about vocal range and texture.
The just repaired air conditioning makes it to the stage too late to bring comfort to Stapleton , who by the time he gets to the last song “Outlaw State of Mind,” his black, pearl snap shirt, was drenched through. ‘Outlaw…’ is a perfect sonic bookend to “Nobody to Blame.” It’s slow swampy build, and rebel-theme, build to a full-tilt bombast to send the grinning crowd into warm Texas night.
Nobody to Blame
Tennessee Whiskey (George Jones cover)
You Don’t Know How It Feels (Tom Petty cover)
Amanda (Waylon Jennings cover)
If It Hadn’t Been for Love
Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey
Whiskey and You
Outlaw State of Mind