Chris Stapleton is one of those songwriters. Long hair. Big beard. Cowboy hat with feathers on the band. In Nashville, where he moved from Kentucky 15 years ago, he's penned songs for the upper crust of country: Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Sheryl Crow, Luke Bryan. George Strait recorded a Chris Stapleton song, but then so did Adele. Who else can say that? The songs he writes aren't lead singles, usually—they're the substantial, soulful cuts without which there would be no justification for someone's album in the first place.
This year, Stapleton is finally releasing an LP all his own: Traveller. Co-produced with Dave Cobb, who's made a name for himself doing rock-solid, tradition-minded work for Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, Traveller is easily, and naturally, the year's strongest country debut. Out May 5th, it's got the best parts of the genre: softness within toughness.
While most of the album was written by Stapleton, of course, it also includes a rendition of “Tennessee Whiskey," which I'm excited to debut today. The song is by Dean Dillon—the songwriting icon who was George Strait's go-to guy—and Linda Hargrove, the low-key “Blue Jean Country Queen." Beyond being a fantastic throwback and a romantic cut, I like to think of the song as doing double duty: a tribute to that kind of writer country's always had, more than any other genre, where their solo work never feels like a shrewd career move so much as it does it does the inevitable spilling-over of some uncontainable talent.
Congratulations on your performance on Letterman last week. Your wife was singing onstage with you—what's that like? To get to stand on that Sullivan Theater and play a song was a surreal thing, for sure. It's always wonderful that we get to sing together and travel together. It's an interesting and fun thing all the time.
The whole album is sort of owing to her, right? My father passed away in 2013, October, and she bought me an old Jeep out in Arizona. We flew out in Arizona in December and drove all the way back to Nashville in kind of a head-clearing moment. Along the way, I wrote the song “Traveller" while everybody was sleeping. That certainly operated as a catalyst for the record, and from there she was really instrumental in sorting out songs to do and how to do them.
“Tennessee Whiskey" has been recorded by David Allan Coe and George Jones. What made you want to do it? It's always been a favorite song of mine. We had a show in Charlottesville, Virginia, and we were sound checking, waiting around for the mics to get set up. Me and the guys in the band started playing a little bit and got into that groove, so I started thinking, “Man, what song could I sing over top of this?" For whatever reason, I started singing “Tennessee Whiskey." At the time, we had a steel player by the name of Steve Hinson who used to play with George Jones on the road—maybe that was part of the equation. But we decided to do the song that night and every night since. By the time we got into the studio, it was something we all enjoyed playing. It's a part of the fabric of things that influenced me over the years.
You've written songs for a lot of big commercial acts. Do you think of yourself as walking a line, with your solo music on the rougher side of things and the mainstream artists you write for on the shiny other side? Do you think it's kind of weird? I think it's kind of weird that I get to play music for a living, period. I've always been someone who tries to do things that will stand up over time. I'm always thankful when anybody wants to record my songs. Every little bit helps, and it lets me play on things and sing on things and make my own records. Sometimes it seems like I'm a musical oddity, where I hop in and out of things that might be opposing forces, but I don't really feel that way about it. It's one path for me, and I try to walk through doors that are open. I always try to make myself a little bit uncomfortable, just to see what will happen. That's what interests me, as much as anything.
What do you mean by uncomfortable? Just creatively. For example, a while back I got a call from a writer friend of mine named Dan Wilson. He asked me if I wanted to go to New Orleans and write jazz music for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. I don't know really anything about jazz, or New Orleans jazz in particular. But it intrigued me, and I'm a fan of Dan's, so I tried it out. A few of the songs got recorded, and it was a really healthy musical experience and one of my favorite things I've ever gotten to do.
With the success of artists like Kacey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson, it seems like there's an overall climate in country music that's better suited for your sound than it was a few years ago. It feels like Traveller will get it's best chance. I hope so. I think timing is a very important element of releasing music, particularly if you're trying to release music on the front end of the curve. The timing of it is almost everything. It's an impossible thing to predict, and hopefully—it's just a difficult thing. I hope it's a good time for this record, and I hope that people are open to it. But regardless of that, I'm proud of the work we've done and I certainly think it's one of the best things I've gotten to do, regardless of whatever commercial success it may receive.
Do you think country is in good shape? Absolutely. As far as sales and market share, if you want to get into that kind of thing. Terrestrial radio is very strong. I'm sure the ACMs will be on of the highest-rated shows that gets put on. Country is very popular, whatever that means—to some end, we're doing something right in there. As long as people want to buy music and go see live shows, as long as they're doing that for somebody, it's good for everybody.
As a songwriter with a solo career, I'm sure you hope people discover you in someone else's liner notes. Who helped you out with your album that you hope fans will go check out next? Dean Dillon, who wrote “Tennessee Whiskey," is a great artist in his own right. I'm not sure everybody is as aware of Dean as they should be. He's written hit on top of hit, standard on top of standard. He wrote 50 songs for George Strait. Ronnie Bowman is a dear friend of mine and kind of a bluegrass legend that's on the record as a writer. Barry Bales has done a lot of songs with me, as well as Alison Krauss and Union Station. It's an interesting thing where we're all feeding off of each other and supporting each other.
In that spirit, here are three more roads Traveller might lead you down, thanks to the people who helped make it.
Dean Dillon, "The New Never Wore Off My Sweet Baby"
Dan Tyminski & Ronnie Bowman, "It's Getting Better All the Time"
Alison Krauss & Union Station, "Now That I've Found You"
Lead photo: Becky Fluke