Chris Stapleton: Nashville’s Best-Kept Secret

Chris Stapleton: Nashville’s Best-Kept Secret

Chris Stapleton is not answering his cellphone, so there is some trepidation among his management team that he may miss our interview, one that’s been on the books for about a month. But 10 minutes before the scheduled 2 p.m. sit-down at an office in Nashville’s trendy Gulch neighborhood, Chris appears, unaware of any hubbub.

photo by Becky Fluke/Sacks & Co.
photo by Becky Fluke/Sacks & Co.

It turns out he lost his cellphone the day before. Instead of being panicked, as most folks would be nowadays without their mobile lifeline, Chris is totally at peace.

“I’ve been without it for a day now, and it’s pretty nice,” says Chris as he sits down and adjusts the ball cap that’s unsuccessfully trying to sequester his mane. “I refused to get a cellphone for years, until I finally gave in. I used to like the notion of no one being able to get ahold of me. This immediacy about everything is a modern notion that shouldn’t exist like it does. There are conveniences with cellphones, for sure, but there’s also a sense of immediacy that’s probably not healthy.”

It never crossed Chris’ mind that anyone was worried he might not show up for the interview. He agreed to it a month ago. And here he is, just like in the pre-cellphone days when you made a plan and stuck to it. In this way—and many more—37-year-old Chris is a throwback, an old soul with a soulful voice.

The son of a Kentucky coal miner, Chris has been in Nashville for the last 15 years, working as a songwriter, guitarist and vocalist. He has co-penned more than 170 album cuts, including Billboard No. 1 songs for Kenny Chesney (“Never Wanted Nothing More”) and Darius Rucker (“Come Back Song”), and he fronted Grammy-nominated bluegrass outfit The SteelDrivers from 2008 to 2010. Turn on the radio right now, and there’s a good chance Chris had a hand or voice in what’s playing, from Gary Allan’s “Hangover Tonight” to Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn.”

He may not be a household name, but mention “Chris Stapleton” to anyone in Nashville in the know, and you’ll get a series of adjectival superlatives, starting with a voice that’s as dark and gritty and beautiful as a slab of Kentucky coal. In fact, if you put a pickax in his hands, it’s not hard to imagine him prospecting in those deep, haunting mines without cellphone reception. But he’s got brighter plans right now—21st-century plans—starting with his solo debut album, Traveller, which drops on May 5 and was co-produced by mastermind Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson).

The 14-song offering, of which Chris penned 12, is a cross-country journey of varying speeds, bookended by the optimistic title track that starts the trip (see sidebar) and the live recording of “Sometimes I Cry,” which serves as the road-weary destination point. In between, Traveller is full of hard drinking (“Whiskey and You”), good women (“More of You”) and bad choices (“Nobody to Blame”) that highlight Chris’ compelling songwriting, musicianship and vocals.

“I like albums—the concept of an album—I like to put something on and have it kick my ass from start to finish,” says Chris. “I hope that’s what this album does for people. My goal is to always find something that’s unique to me and the guys I’m playing with and what people would see if they came out on the road.

“I’m a fan of performances. We tried to have the mentality of giving a good performance when we recorded Traveller.”

“In December 2013, my wife bought me a 1979 Jeep Cherokee Chief S, four-door, original interior, original 360 [cubic-inch engine] with the Native American patterns down the side and on the interior. So we flew out to Phoenix to pick it up and drive it back to Nashville. It’s a time machine, almost. It only had 77,000 miles on it. I wrote the album’s first song and title track, ‘Traveller,’ while I was driving back. My wife was asleep, and it was either sunset or sunrise, going 60 down Highway 40 somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico. I just started singing and trying to record it softly so she wouldn’t wake up. The lyrics came beginning to end as I watched the sun over the mountains.”

And just maybe, Traveller will kick so much ass that ghostlike Chris will be visible to the rest of the country. It already netted Chris one of the final musical appearances on the Late Show With David Letterman in April, and he has a slew of spring and summer tour dates with Eric Church and Little Big Town lined up.

“I’m always floating in and out,” says Chris with a grin that even his beard can’t hide. “I’m a part of county radio more than people may realize, and I’m very thankful for it. I’m excited to play this album on the road and share it with people. Anything that happens beyond that is wonderful, and you always hope for the best, but I’m going to keep making music and playing music regardless of the commercial success.”

With that said, Chris stands up, tips his cap goodbye and floats out of the office. It’s time to vanish to his next appointment. No cellphone needed. CW

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