Country hit-writer makes solid showing with throwback-feeling, Blues-heavy debut.
(Original version published on Southern Senses 10/15/15)*
At some point over a year ago, a friend let me hear a 2013 song called “What Are You Listening To.” Though the tune delved into some of the standard modern country music tropes that aren’t usually my cup of tea, other elements in the track, such as distinct blues and Southern rock influences, caught and held my attention. But perhaps no element struck me more immediately than the singer’s powerful, rough, Southern-heaped, blues/rock vocals. That singer was Chris Stapleton. “Who is this fellow?” I thought. Shortly there after, I read his story and discovered he was, as Country Weekly would put it a few months later, “Nashville’s Best-Kept Secret.” But no need exists for me to expound on Mr. Stapleton’s credentials as they are listed very succinctly on his official website as follows:
“He has written five No. 1 songs for George Strait, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker and Josh Turner and contributed cuts to several major motion picture soundtracks. He’s also been nominated for three Grammy Awards and won the International Bluegrass Music Association Emerging Artist of the Year award as a member of The SteelDrivers.
His songwriting credits span all genres and artists from Adele to Jason Aldean and he’s recorded with everyone from Miranda Lambert to Don Williams.”
After 15 years working as a highly respected artist in the music industry, Stapleton finally released his debut full-length, Traveller, an effort that I think his long-time fans have found well worth the wait. To me, the most remarkable element of the record is the obvious calculation of Stapleton’s songwriting. Whether musically veering blues, country, or pop or lyrically teetering between cliche and profound, the album always appears to be directed so by Stapleton and company, who seem gloriously aware of the difference between art and commercialism and see no reason the two can’t coexist.
The album kicks off with the titular track, which, at various points throughout the song, brings back nostalgic feelings of 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s country, as well as classic Southern rock. Even more fascinating is the tale behind the song’s genesis: Stapleton wrote the tune on a road trip through Arizona/New Mexico as he watched the sun behind the mountains while his wife slept in the passenger seat.
2. “Fire Away”
My personal favorite track from the record, “Fire Away” is a heartfelt country, blues ballad, showcasing the stellar vocals of Stapleton and boasting some of the best lyrical content on the record.
3. “Tennessee Whiskey”
Originally a 1980s country/western tune recorded by both David Allen Coe and George Jones, “Tennessee Whiskey” is reimagined here as a late 60s-ish, slow-dance, soul-meets-blues/rock track with a lo-fi leaning sound that is very reminiscent of much of Alabama Shakes first record, Boys & Girls. A close second favorite track for me.
5. “Whiskey and You”
“Whiskey and You” begins the record’s segue into more traditional country territory and is probably the best of the more country-fied tunes. The acoustic guitar-only ballad sonically clears the way for Stapleton’s vocals (and speaking voice) as he delivers the lines of a conceptually clever chorus:
“One’s the devil, one keeps driving me insane
At times I wonder if they ain’t both the same
But one’s a liar that helps to hide me from my pain
And one’s the long gone bitter truth
That’s the difference between whiskey and you”
7. “More of You”
If you like classic country/western from the 40s, 50s, and early 60s, you’ll love this waltz which brings to mind several classic artists including Hank Williams, Sr. and George Jones.
10. “Might As Well Get Stoned”
A lo-fi-ish Blues-based rocker that sounds like it was deliberately written to be the next classic bar tune—and that is no a criticism.
13. “Outlaw State of Mind”
A swampy, blues-leaning tune with plenty of outlaw country influence. Could be another candidate for the bar circuit of the future.
14. “Sometimes I Cry”
Another lo-fi Blues tune. This one opens up with solo electric guitar instrumentation and sees Stapleton deliver more vocal excellence and showcase his range.
Album Rating: 4/5
Sub Categories: Country, Country/Western, Blues, Rock, Blues Rock
*In 2015, Cole Powell and bandmate/wife Brittany D launched Southern Senses, an online publication dedicated to showcasing the best music and cuisine from the Southern United States. With talented site contributors (including Southern rocker J. F. Oakes and restaurateur Christa Reid Neil), the site gained immediate success, attracting the attention of renowned restaurateur Robert St. John and retired NFL tight end Reggie Kelly, among others. Though Powell opted to discontinue the site in 2017, select articles can be found on the Ramblings of a Mad Man blog section of colepowell.net.