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FIRST-CLASS TRAVELLER: CHRIS STAPLETON SPEAKS
Talking to the CMA Breakout About Songs, Shows and His Surreal New Reality

“It’s a little surreal.” That’s how Chris Stapleton describes the explosion of interest following his breakout duet with Justin Timberlake on the CMAs, which went viral and has helped catapult Stapleton’s Mercury Nashville set, Traveller, to a #1 perch on the HITS Album and SPS charts. The bearded troubadour also took New Artist of the Year, Album of the Year and Male Vocal trophies at the CMAs.

“We’ve known each other for three years or so, checking on each other—talking about dad stuff and music,” Stapleton says of his relationship with JT. “But I always thought we’d do something together just because we liked and respected each other. When this opportunity came up, I asked if he’d be interested and he said, ‘Just tell me when to show up.’” He pitched the idea to the CMA folks, who were understandably excited.

The recognition now overwhelming The Red Light-repped Stapleton is well-deserved; the man is a writer of remarkable depth and possesses the kind of lived-in, soulful voice that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. But “new artist”? Stapleton, who has a substantial discography as a band member and has seen his songs recorded by Adele, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Tim McGraw, Miranda Lambert, Thomas Rhett, Darius Rucker, Lee Ann Womack, Alan Jackson and other stars, is one of those “overnight successes” that’s been brewing for 15 years. Traveller, released in May, consists of songs he’s written throughout his entire career.

“My wife [singer Morgane Stapleton] distilled the list to about 45 songs,” he recalls. “She’s good at that—I always say she has great taste in everything but men.” UMG Nashville SVP A&R Brian Wright also played a key role, he says, in song selection. “Sometimes we’re not the best judge of our own material,” Stapleton muses. “I’m always looking forward.” But older compositions like 2005’s “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” took on new resonance; the singer/songwriter penned the elegiac, classic-sounding tune “as fiction” but it acquired the ring of truth when his father passed away in 2013.

His love of the traditional approach extends beyond songwriting. “We went into the studio with a band and played the songs essentially live,” he notes. “That doesn’t sound particularly radical, but it is by today’s standards. A lot of records are getting made in a more segmented way these days,” but he says the results of musicians playing together in the same space speak for themselves. “I listen to Ray Charles records—and they can sound sloppy and out of tune by today’s standards. But that’s part of what’s so real about them.”

Left: Stapleton with UMG Nashville's Mike Dungan and Cindy Mabe and Morgane Stapleton

The Kentucky coal miner’s son became enamored of songwriting as a teen. (A song he wrote during this period, “Nobody’s Fool,” ended up being recorded by Lambert.) Eventually he called a number provided by a friend, submitted some demos and ended up being invited to Nashville. He worked odd jobs and wrote feverishly; just before the money he’d borrowed from a family member ran out, he secured his first pub deal.

Though Traveller is Stapleton’s first solo set, it’s not his first rodeo as an artist. He achieved recognition with the Grammy-nominated bluegrass band The SteelDrivers (Adele ended up covering their “If It Hadn’t Been for Love” for a special U.K. edition of 21) and fronted the Southern-rock troupe The Jompson Brothers.

When asked about country music’s changing sounds and styles, he’s philosophical. “Music always goes in cycles,” he says. “When I moved to town in 2001, Shania Twain was the biggest thing—very pop. I was writin’ waltzes! Country seems to be the place where people are most open to the melting pot. I’m a big lover of traditional country music and traditional ways of making records. I can only do what I do; I’m not into labels.”

BLACKOUT TUESDAY: HOW THE MAJORS RESPONDED
(6/5a)
HARLESTON, HABTEMARIAM LAUNCH UMG TASK FORCE
(6/5a)
SONY MUSIC SETS UP $100M FUND
(6/5a)
10K OPENS FUND TO AID BLACK YOUTH
(6/5a)
BLACK MUSIC MONTH: THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED
(6/5a)
WHAT NEXT?
The biz ponders action after some reflection.
GRAMMY SPECULATION
100% guaranteed to be somewhat accurate, probably.
BLACK MUSIC MONTH
...continues.
TRUMP'S IN THE BUNKER
Just to inspect it, though.
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