July 23, 2015

Hit Nashville Writer Chris Stapleton Hits the Road with Solo Debut

On his new album, Nashville singer-songwriter CHRIS STAPLETON distills vintage Southern sounds and themes into powerful songs that bring a shot of soul back to the country charts

KENTUCKY-BORN AND BRED, Chris Stapleton couldn't be more authentically Southern. Big of heart, beard and hat, he’s made a name for himself in Nashville writing songs for some of the top names in country music and has become one of the most respected craftsmen in music. He has written more than 150 songs for a wide variety of artists, from Adele to Jason Aldean, including five #1 songs written for George Strait, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker and Josh Turner. He has contributed cuts to several major motion picture soundtracks. He has won six ASCAP Country Music Awards. He’s also been nominated for three Grammy Awards and, through his acclaimed work with his former bluegrass band, The SteelDrivers, he won the International Bluegrass Music Association Emerging Artist of the Year Award.

This year Stapleton emerges in a different way – as a solo recording artist. His newly-released and highly anticipated album, Traveller (Mercury Records) contains 14 songs overflowing with whiskey, redemption, devils, stars, heartbreak and love. It’s raw, rowdy and real. It debuted at #2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart. And it is sure to establish Stapleton as more than a best-kept Music City secret. As he set out on a tour to support Traveller, Stapleton talked to Playback about his music, his motivation and his mission.

You are well into a successful music career, yet you are just now releasing your first album under you own name. Why now?

It just was the right time to do it. Universal had come to me a number of years ago – I don’t know how long it’s been now - and asked me to make a record for them, and then there were some switchover things in there that kind of postponed it, but really it came down to the fact that they asked me to do it, so I did – as simple as that.

You’ve had a number of hit songs written for other artists. When it came time to putting your name on these songs and putting them out as a record, were they songs that you had held back for yourself over the years or were they written as a group for this record?

They span probably the entirely of my 15-year career and I don’t believe in holding songs back at all. I mean, if somebody wants to record them, that’s fine with me, but it doesn’t prevent me from recording them too. My wife really was the main compiler of songs, I guess. She helped me sift through my songs and made a list. And then, Brian Wright at Universal A&R got a few entries in there, and then some of the things we wound up recording on the record just kind of happened in the studio.

When you do write for other artists, do you approach a song differently than when you know you’re going to record it yourself?

The goal is always just to write the best song that you can write. I mean, the process for writing a song is the process for writing a song. It’s not something I look at it as something I need to do something different. But for me, unless I’m specifically writing with an artist for a specific project, I’m always just trying to write the best song that comes up that day, regardless of what kind of genre it’s supposed to fit into. You just try to do the best version of whatever song you write.

You embrace a wide variety of music. You’ve had your foot in the bluegrass world with The SteelDrivers, played straight-up rock with The Jompson Brothers and you’re loved by the Nashville community for writing great country songs. Stylistically, what does this album reflect about your own personal tastes and what you wanted to share musically?

Well, I don’t know if I’m trying to make a statement or anything as much as just trying to do things that I think are good. It was a matter of me trying to do things that were tasteful and good and had the best opportunity to be timeless, which should always be the goal when making records.

“It was a matter of me trying to do things that were tasteful and good and had the best opportunity to be timeless, which should always be the goal when making records.”

You have two young kids. And balancing a family life with a professional music career is always a challenge for anyone. How do you do that?

Well, my kids are riding on the bus with me. They come with me whenever they can, and I have my in-laws and my mother, who both live nearby in Nashville – we have a really good family support system. I don’t look at family and what I do for a living as separate things. They’re all kind of one thing, and this is part of their life just like it’s part of mine.

You came out of Kentucky. Your father was a coalminer. What motivated you to move to Nashville to become a songwriter?

Probably a lack of interest in anything else. That’s truthful. I went to college a little bit and that didn’t work out and I didn’t finish. So, I would play in bars until I ran out of money and then I’d get a real job. I met a songwriter named Steve Leslie, and once I found out that there somebody would pay you to sit around and write songs [LAUGHS], I thought that was the job I had to do. And so, the first three or four years after I moved to Nashville, that was the focus. And then, born out of songwriting came The SteelDrivers and then came The Jompson Brothers. Here we are 15 years later.

In Nashville it seems like to be a successful songwriter you really need to hustle, because there’s so much competition. That doesn’t seem to be your nature and yet you have written with so many people. How have you been able to achieve that?

I’m not a hustler. I don’t pitch songs. I don’t ask people to write with me. It’s not what I do. I’ve been fortunate to have really great publishing partners over the years. You know, Liz O’Sullivan of Sea Gayle Music was a champion of mine for a dozen years. I’m at Warner/ Chappell now and Ben Vaughn and Alicia Pruitt are my champions. So I’m not the kind of guy – I’m not a salesman. Some guys are and there are guys who are more successful at songwriting because they are that personality type, but that’s not me and I’ve never been comfortable doing that [LAUGHS], so – I’ll just write songs and hope they find a way. So far, that’s worked out for me.

You seem fortunate to be able to express yourself in these different musical formats, like bluegrass and rock. Do you feel lucky that you’re able to do tha? So many artists can get boxed in.

Well, I think any artist that gets boxed in, it’s their own fault. If you’re not doing something that’s authentic to what you should be doing, then you’re not doing the right thing anyway, and if you’re doing it just for the money, then it’s probably the wrong reason. I do feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do what I do. You know, for years when I played bluegrass I saw songwriting income dip quite a bit because I was out playing bluegrass, but that’s what I wanted to do and out of that I got into this. So I mean, there’s all these things that you do for the right reasons and hope the back end of it works out. And for me, that’s generally been the case. I really don’t like to operate any other way. When I do it upsets the balance to me of trying to make music for the right reasons.

What was the music you grew up on? Was it something specific to the South or was it a combination of stuff you heard on the radio?

Oh, all things. My earliest memories of music are probably my dad listening to a bunch of outlaw country, but also old R&B and Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin. But, you know, I had rock phases and liked more modern R&B acts. I’ve always listened to all kinds of music, and I like all kinds of music. When I first moved to Nashville, there was a producer friend of mine that said there’s two kinds of music, good music and bad music. That’s really how I feel about music. I try to focus on listening to and making the good music as much as I can. But sometimes, you know, you can fall short of that mark.

Are there any songs on Traveller that you’re particularly proud of, or that you hold dearer than the others for any personal reasons?

No, I don’t really look at them as individual songs, even. I look at them as a body of work. And for that reason, I’m proud of all of them together. I feel they all kind of came together in a way that I would have hoped for. I’m a fan of records. I’m a fan of listening to something cover to cover and not wanting to skip over anything. I still kind of feel that way about this one, and anybody who makes records will tell you that if you don’t have a hard time making a record at some point, you’re real lucky [LAUGHS]. And I was real lucky in that this was an easy and natural thing.

One of the joys of performing your own songs on tour is to feel those songs experienced by a live audience. Having written for so many other artists who perform your music, are you enjoying the electric charge you get from performing these songs live?

It’s nice to see people invest in what you do as an artist, and sing the songs back at you, and feel something. You get to feel something more than what you were feeling when you made the record. So it’s always a new thing and you never get tired of it.

Is there a common thread running through these songs?

Hopefully they’re good. [LAUGHS]. They all have flashes of meaning, whether it’s the story behind the songs themselves or the time period surrounding the creation of the song. They’re all little pieces of the last 14 or 15 years of my life. So that’s the thread.

Unlike other art forms like films and paintings, music is such a unique sort of experience for the person experiencing it. What is it about music that you think you can only get through listening to a song?

It’s one of those experiences that you can put yourself inside maybe more so than movies or other visual arts. When you’re listening to a song in that that moment, it’s you. If the creator and the sound and the musicians are all doing their job, they can get to places that maybe other things can’t and really tap into some powerful emotions. It’s a unique thing, and it’s probably the thing I love most about songs and music - their ability to connect in a human way. PB