Kentucky-born Chris Stapleton is skating into the spotlight off a song that praises another state’s liquor: the barroom ballad “Tennessee Whiskey.” It’s a tune that hews close to an old country tradition; written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove, and originally recorded by David Allan Coe, it was a 1983 version recorded by the eminent George Jones that eventually spurred this song to “country great” status. In some ways, it’s easy to compare Stapleton to one of those old country songs, floating around in the genre’s psyche, waiting for the proper moment to seize or be seized, and rise to the top of an often petulant, unpredictable corner of the music industry. Stapleton is more of a Nashville veteran than most who currently roost within the city limits. To hear the way he begs to deploy love as a saving grace on “Parachute,” or the hidden, confusing pain of a father’s religious disavowal on “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” is to hear a compelling, brilliant poet who has settled deep into his groove.
Stapleton used to spent some time fronting the esteemed, Grammy-nominated bluegrass act the Steeldrivers, and perhaps Traveller reveals why he ended up splitting ways with them, it’s been a while since I’ve heard a record that’s more diverse. Bluegrass lurks around the corners (see “More Of You”) but Stapleton’ll go from a Southern rock anthem like “Outlaw State Of Mind” and easily let you down into the gentle runaround of “When The Stars Come Out” that sounds like Guy Clark reincarnated. Limiting a songwriter of this incredible scope to the confines of bluegrass would be a sin, as would restricting him to backup singer and credited songwriter status. Eventually, someone preached this gospel message loud enough, or with enough fire-and-brimstone to spur Stapleton into this expansive, explosive solo album. Traveller is all over the map, but the journey he takes us on might damn well be the trip of a lifetime. Country music doesn’t need a goddamn savior, but if you’re into all that dogma, this record is a sermon worth hearing.
Stream the album in full via NPR. Traveller is out 5/5 on Mercury Records Nashville. Pre-order it here.