A little bit late to the party with this review as following its USA release in May 2015 Chris Stapleton cleaned up in Novembers Country Music Association awards winning in the Best Male Vocalist, Best New Artist and Best Album categories. Further nominations have followed for Best Country Album, Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Song in the 2016 Grammys. So, he certainly is not in need of another gushing review!
I first discovered Chris Stapleton a few weeks ago when I stumbled across a YouTube video of him and his wife doing a little book store cameo concert somewhere in the USA. He played an impossibly old and battered Gibson acoustic, boasted a stunning voice, shared the stage with his wife on harmony vocals and between them they performed three beautifully stripped back versions of songs from the album.
Having subsequently bought the CD 'Traveller' following its UK release in the latter part of 2015, a little bit of research showed that although this was his solo debut, he is far from being an 'unknown. He has spent the past fifteen years writing and co writing hits for such country luminaries as Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw and Darius Rucker to name a few. He has also played and sang on numerous recordings and headed his own bands, the bluegrass outfit The Steeldrivers and southern rock band The Jompson Brothers. Lastly, although a debut album, 'Traveller' is also something of a retrospective featuring songs culled from over 15 years worth of material. Most are co writes, three are completely self-penned and the two covers, 'Tennessee Whiskey' and 'Was It 26' are outstanding performances of great songs but still sound as though they could be Chris Stapleton originals.
Although ostensibly ensconced in the world of Country Music, I find it difficult to fit this release easily into a specific genre. Running through the tracks does provide some clues; the ubiquitous pedal steel guitar is in evidence on several songs as are the archetypal Country music themes of whiskey, getting stoned, losing loved ones and deserving it, life on the road, outlaws and ruing missed opportunities.
So with tracks one and two, 'Traveller' and 'Fire Away', so far so country, although still distinguishable from his contemporaries by his remarkable voice, something of a cross between Amos Lee and Nathaniel Rateliff with a splash of the Springsteen roar on occasions.
However, stylistically things shift considerably by track three 'Tennesse Whiskey' which almost occupies Sam Cooke territory, track four 'Parachute' could be lifted from Bob Seeger and The Silver Bullet Band at their rocking 70's finest and track five, 'Whiskey and You' is an intimate guitar and vocal number that is stunning in its nuanced, understated delivery.
This track 'Whiskey and You' along with 'Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore' and 'Was it 26' all have a quiet intensity where Chris also uses little half spoken phrases to great effect which conjures up shades of classic Guy Clark in confessional mode.
And so it goes throughout the album, always restless and never settling despite the generic nature of the themes, which lends a 'familiar but fresh' feel that I think must account for much of its commercial appeal to date.
For me, another attraction is the universally great playing and production. Chris himself plays mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar and is joined by his long time band collaborators on Bass, Drums, Pedal Steel and Harmonica, plus of course his aforementioned wife Morgane Stapleton on harmony vocals.
This is also a long album, fourteen tracks with a running time spanning just over sixty minutes of which just two songs are shorter than four minutes, and then only just!
Clearly, he was spoilt for choice with fifteen years of material to whittle down, but an album this long does run the risk of losing the listener. Fortunately, for me at least this did not happen and if anything, the last three tracks of the album are amongst the strongest here, which end things with real momentum and the wish to hear more. Special mention must be made of the final song 'Sometimes I cry', which is a live recording and all the more remarkable for that. Featuring what sounds like a basic live band of drums, bass and electric guitar the vocal performance is outstanding in range and power and it is no real stretch of the imagination to visualise the late James Brown belting this one out, crying then falling to his knees testifying before being helped from the stage!
Culturally, it will be very interesting to see how this album is received in the UK, or more specifically, how these well-versed country themes fit the listener here. For example, songs that so repeatedly reference drinking whiskey are somehow acceptable in the context of USA country music, but would sound ludicrous if sang outside of this genre.
Ordinarily, for me these themes would quickly pall and jar but it is the sheer quality of his joyous, uplifting voice, the band performance and fundamental quality of the songs that transcends any doubts and delivers an engaging, personal and vibrant album.
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