Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller” traverses his songwriting career

IN A DAY'S WORK: Although he's made a career writing hit country songs, Chris Stapleton doesn't come from a music background. "The first time I met a songwriter I thought, 'This is the job for me,'" he says. Photo by Becky Fluke

“I’m always just trying to write the best song I can write on any given day,” says Chris Stapleton. That statement could come off as pat or soundbite-esque, but the Nashville-based singer-songwriter has accomplished more than composing noteworthy material for his own ventures (bluegrass band The SteelDrivers and an eponymous project) — he’s written chart-topping hits for the likes of Kenny Chesney, George Strait and Darius Rucker.

“I think you just have to know people, or at least pay attention to them,” says Stapleton. “As long as you’re doing that, you can write songs for people.”

The musician spoke to Mountain Xpress while driving through the recent storms in Oklahoma — not ideal travel conditions, but somehow fitting for Stapleton’s tour in support of his solo album, Traveller. The journey brings him to The Orange Peel on Thursday, June 18.

Stapleton is a three-time Grammy nominee and an ASCAP and International Bluegrass Music Association award winner. He’s hardly a newcomer to the music business. In fact, on the album notes for Traveller he states, “I was slugging it out in Nashville when it wasn’t the hip thing to do.” Not that Stapleton admonishes the new guard of music hopefuls in his adopted city. (It would be a lot of people to snub: CNN reported that 30,000 moved to Nashville in 2013). He claims to keep his name badge from a previous job at Papa John’s in his medicine cabinet as a reminder of where he came from.

Such mnemonic devices are necessary in the wake of Nashville’s progress juggernaut. “We’ve got an influx of really great restaurants, which is wonderful,” says Stapleton. But he notes the building where he went to his first recording session and stumbled in on Guy Clark tracking a song with Darrell Scott: “Now they’ve knocked that down,” the musician says. “I met my wife in the building next door, which is now a hole in the ground. The majority of the songs I wrote, I wrote in that building. … A lot of my own personal history has been demolished.”

Pre-Music City, Stapleton called Kentucky home, though he doesn’t have a country-music pedigree. His family, he says, are all engineers and lawyers. “I’m a black sheep,” he jokes. “My parents loved music. … A lot of people assume I grew up on bluegrass. I actually didn’t even listen to bluegrass until I was in my early 20s.”

Stapleton adds, “When you know what you have a passion for, doing anything else is a disservice to yourself.” That devotion is clear on Traveller, from the steel guitar-tinged title track — a dusky confessional with worn denim and rain-smeared window overtones — to the glittery, heartfelt slow dance “When the Stars Come Out.” While the record is filed under country, it’s as much a product of Americana and ’70s-era California rock, and the joy in its creation is palpable.

“A lot of my favorite records — Ray Charles records — were [like] that,” says Stapleton. “The capturing of a moment, for all of its imperfections, can also put the most human things into music. That’s what I want to hear.” Most of Traveller’s 14 tracks were recorded live, with all of the players (J.T. Cure on bass, Derek Mixon on drums, Robby Turner on pedal steel, Mickey Raphael on harmonica and Mike Webb on piano and organ) in the same room.

Of those tracks, 12 are co-writes that span more than a decade. “The 23-year-old me is somewhere on this record … and the 37-year-old me with two kids and a wife is on this record. Brain cells that have long been dead are on this record,” Stapleton says on “15 Years of Traveller,” a recently released video about the making of the album. “To get all of those people on this album is a little bit overwhelming. … Everything I’ve ever done leads up to this record.”

And, although the project took years and a few false starts to finally bring to fruition, there’s a kind of continuity in Stapleton’s performance of it. He’s on the road with most of the musicians from the album, including his wife, vocalist Morgane Stapleton. “I think the best music is made by bands,” he says. “The musicianship that happens when you play with somebody all the time, or sit on a bus with them for a week — it shows up in the music in a good way.”

WHO: Chris Stapleton
WHERE: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Thursday, June 18, 9 p.m. $15

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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