What do Adele, Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Sheryl Crow and George Strait have in common? Aside from a sweet tax bracket, each have turned tracks written by Chris Stapleton into hits. But now, one of the industry’s go-to songwriters is stepping out on his own: Traveller, Stapleton’s already-acclaimed debut, is out now.
At 37, the Kentucky native isn’t exactly an ingenue. But his age helps with the work: Stapleton covered Charlie Daniels’ “Was It 26” because, as he said, “I guess I’m finally old enough to do that.” He put together a capital-A Album bursting with old-school country outlaw tracks that his voice has lived long enough to sing. Characters, like the woman burning her husband’s guitar and filling his gas tank with sugar on “Nobody to Blame” or the father abandoning his religion on “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,” are as vivid as anything out of Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison playbook (and delivered in a voice nearly as rich as the Man in Black’s tone but with an added bluesy rasp).
Traveller‘s 14 tracks brim with tricky devils, starry skies, empty bottles, lapsed believers and epic hangovers. “We have that storytelling history in country and bluegrass and old-time folk, and blues,” he says. “It’s fun to be a part of that and tip the hat to that.”
Ahead, the highlights from two conversations with the singer that stretched from the roots of the blues to his beard.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I like to joke that every country album has a song about whiskey on it. Traveller has two. What is it about country music and whiskey?
Chris Stapleton: [Laughs] Well, it’s delicious for one thing. But beyond that, a lot of bad decisions are made under the influence of whiskey and a lot of country songs are written that way as well. We have a history in country music of writing about the darker side of things—maybe not as much in modern times, but there’s a lot of cheating and self-deprecation. We sort it out in song, in country music, as a genre. For whatever weird reason, that kind of dark stuff makes me feel good [laughs].
You have a line on “Nobody to Blame” about turning your relationship and lives into a country song. Is that where that comes from?
I do, yeah. We were just trying to write a good, self-loathing country song. I remember that was one of the happiest days because we were having so much fun, yet that song is extremely dark and probably tragic. But we were having fun, we had a load of fun. It’s kind of a strange anomaly that depression is so fun.
So it’s safe to say you believe in the storytelling side of country rather than needing everything to be autobiographical.
I love that about country music. It’s a mini-movie, sometimes. It exists elsewhere, but more in country music. We have that storytelling history in country and bluegrass and old time and folk music, blues—all those things that combine to make up the genre. It was probably storytelling before it was songwriting, as far as country music is concerned. It’s fun to be a part of that and tip the hat to that. You know, and keep that tradition alive.
Speaking of mini-movies, ending the album with the live recording of “Sometimes I Cry” and suddenly having background noise of the crowd come in, I felt like I had just snapped out of a movie or a dream.
That was a happy accident—I had the notion to record that song in front of some folks at a little listening party here in town. It was an, “Oh hey, by the way, we’re gonna record one more. Here’s how we did the other ones.” It worked out well I think. And it did give it that effect of the lights coming on a little bit and, “Oh! There’s not a lot of trickery going on here.”
I had to go back and listen just to confirm that I hadn’t gotten so lost in the album that I didn’t realize the others were live recordings.
That’s the kind of active listening we shy away from today in music and I really like the art of an album. I like to put a record on and then listen to it again and then sit down and make my friends listen to it. You know, just say, “Hey, you’ve got to hear this. And I want you to listen and I don’t want you to be buying shit on eBay or be on your phone.”
I think there’s still a lot of people who love music in that way. In the kind of fast-food world that we live in, where everything’s so fast paced and its “Look over here! Look over there,” we don’t really take the time to sit down and enjoy music—or anything else for that matter. I certainly hope that this record reflects that about my personality too.
When did you start putting Traveller together?
The songs on this record span probably a dozen years. [But] my dad passed away in October of 2013 and I had a single die right around that same time on country radio. So I kind of set out on a soul-searching journey of what I wanted to be doing and needed to be doing musically, and a lot of these songs are kind of that. I credit my wife a lot for that. From there, we started recording with Dave and long story short, they wound up where they are.
You touched on something there that I wanted to bring up anyway, producer du jour in the genre, Dave Cobb. He’s credited on three recent good, if not great records from Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson and Jason Isbell. What drew you to him?
I sought Dave out. I heard about half of a song of that Sturgill Simpson record and I was like, “Oh wow, I didn’t know people could still make records like that. Who is this guy? Who got it to this sonic point?” It was a sonic thing that I had probably been running down my whole time in Nashville. And that got me to Dave Cobb. So I hunted him down. [Laughs]
Dave and I have a lot of common interests, musically and sonically, and we’re both kind of gear, guitar nuts to the point of obsession—but mainly we just like to make music that stands alone, and hopefully stands the test of time. He really helped me, I couldn’t have made this record without Dave.
Are you looking for something that is more cohesive sonically or thematically, then?
I think you’re just trying to pick the best songs that you can and if in the recording process other things come up then you follow the muse. That certainly happened on this record, there’s a couple songs on there that weren’t on anybody’s lists, they were just covers that we played or songs that I’ve loved over the years and we were just goofing around and hit the red button and recorded them.
The kind of process is lost today too. We kind of just showed up and had a few cocktails and ate dinner and had fellowship and let the music happen. What you get is what we had.
I read you recorded a couple of them in one take?
There was one song in particular that we didn’t even rehearse, “Was it 26.” That’s an old song, it’s on an old Charlie Daniels record, but a friend of mine, Don Sampson, wrote that song on a pizza hut napkin many, many years ago. It is autobiographical for him and he always told me—I’ve known him since I was 23—“Man, maybe when you’re older you can record that song.” So I guess I finally got old enough to do that [laughs].
So I kind of just started goofing around on it and the guys starting vamping on it a little bit and I said, “You guys want to go over this?” and they said, “No, let’s just do it.” So what you hear is everybody just kind of falling in, in a very unrehearsed way.
A lot of songs on the album that I thought were about interpersonal relationships often turned internal.
I like songs that listeners can kind of find themself in. I think it’s important that you leave some room for that in songs. Intentional ambiguity helps people find themselves in the music and love the music more for that. The songs I love are that. You can’t write on a piece of paper, “This song is about this, this, and this…” It’s more, “This song is about several human emotions, one of which applies to me.”
At this point you’ve written for just about everybody, certainly in Nashville and a few big ones outside of it. Does it ever seem or sound weird to have so many different voices singing your emotions or thoughts?
Where it really strikes home is when you go to a live show or something and someone’s playing that and there are people out in an audience singing words that you had a little part to do with. Then songs become very real. People make it real—they don’t really exist until that point in time for me.
Do you remember the first time you saw one of your songs performed?
I can tell you the one where it really kicked in. I had just gotten the Kenny Chesney single [“Never Wanted Nothin’ More“]—and my cousin wanted me to go. And when you see an arena full of people singing some words that you wrote, that’s when it can really kick in. You’re like, “Wow, this went out into the world and now all of these people know that.” That’s when you realize that music can have some kind of an impact on people.
When you’re a songwriter it’s real easy to sit in a room and write songs and let them go and never get out there and get to have the experience the life that that song will have beyond that—when you get to do that, you get to be a kid again. Man, that’s why I love music.
Hearing something like Luke Bryan’s “Drink A Beer” and then listening to Traveller—I have to admit, it’s hard to see those coming from the same place.
You know, there’s all different kinds of songs and I like all kinds of different music. The interesting thing about songs is that I could sing that song, or any of my others songs that people have recorded, and it would be a completely different thing. That’s what being an artist is, when someone takes a song and does their own interpretation of it—that’s where the artistry really lies.
When I first started writing songs for other people, the first time you hear someone change something you’re like, “Oh you didn’t sing that song right.” You feel like they’re ruining your song or something. But it’s not true at all. What you come to realize over time is that that’s what being an artist is. Those songs that we know as hits or touch someone would not exist or touch anybody without those interpretations of those songs. I’ve come to be thankful for the artistic process.
There seems to be, and maybe I’m being hopeful, more artists cropping up who stand really at the intersection of blues, rock and country and they seem to do so with their artistry. Thinking of you, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and even a Jack White.
Whether or not its intentional, I don’t know but I listen to all of those things and like all those things and grew up trying to emulate those things, and they just end up in you, one way or another. Hopefully somewhere in the middle of all that, you can find something good.
And Jack White is one of my favorite people—I don’t know him personally—but as an artist he’s one of my favorite to watch. He really only concerns himself with doing things that are good art. He’s trying to be interesting, and he’s so deeply rooted in those things. More than any other modern artist, he goes back to the cradle and leans on it.
Obviously you live in Nashville, so the big names are probably noteworthy but you’ve also had big names in other genres cut your songs, like Adele (“If It Hadn’t Been for Love”)—were your parents more impressed by her or one of the big country names coming to you?
Well, they probably didn’t know who she was. You know, the first time I actually got an email from Ken Irwin who founded Rounder Records and he said, “Hey man, Adele is doing a song of yours. She made a YouTube cover of this song.” And to show how much of my own hole that I live, I said, “That’s great, who’s Adele?” [Laughs]
What music did you listen to growing up?
My earliest memories of music, listening with [my dad], would be a lot of outlaw country but then also old R&B—Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, things like that.
Was there an album that ever made you think, this is music, this is what I want to do?
The thought never occurred to me that that’s a job even anybody could ever have. It was never an intentional pursuit until I crossed paths with somebody who was a songwriter. I thought people who recorded music—I didn’t realize there was all the moving parts, that there are to music.
But Tom Petty Wildflowers record is a record for me that top to bottom I fell in love with. Still to this day I listen to that record as my reference point by which all other music is judged. [Laughs]
Mine is Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. Everything stacks on one side or the other for me.
Ah! I had a period of that record, that’s up there in the top five too. And I think everybody has that, and I think it usually happens between the ages of 16 and 25, you find that record, if you’re a music lover at all and every piece of music since then you compare to that and go, “Well, it’s really, really good and it’s almost this, but not.” And nothing is ever going to be, because those records represent a particular moment in your life where you found out what you really love about music.
So there’s really no natural segway here but I can’t end without asking you about your beard.
[Laughs] What? Any beard-care tips? [Laughs] My wife has never seen my chin, I’ve had this beard for 11 or 12 years—had it long before it was the cool thing to have. Now everybody’s got one.
I think I just got lazy one day and the laziness never stopped. But I think it would scare my children if I shaved it off and walked in a room. I’m sure they would be upset about it. But my wife did reserve the right when we got married to ask me to shave my beard but she’s yet to exercise that. That was part of our deal for getting married.
An edited version of this interview appears in the Entertainment Weekly print edition on stands Friday, May 8.