Chris Stapleton

The blues album Travis Tritt wishes he made: A review of Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller”

Wednesday night, country rocker Chris Stapleton took the Country Music Association Awards by storm with a clean sweep for the independent and underground country movement with his album “Traveller.”

I’ve been meaning to review Traveller for months. I’ve never blogged as much as I’d like to and grad school makes it even tougher, but here it is, the long-overdue Hard Times No More review of Traveller:

3.75 whiskey bottles out of 5.

You’re asking, WTF? Empsall, did you drink the other 1.25 bottles?

Well, it is the best album I will ever give less than a 4. I give it 3.75 only because of this blog’s lens. If current country radio is the standard, then Traveller definitely gets a 6 out of 5 – let the whiskey overflow across the floor. If good music in general is the standard, 4.5 out of 5. It’s great stuff, but I’m looking for solid country and Americana music that stands up within the genre. On that particular front, this album is track by track. There’s nothing bad, but not really anything that really knocks me out, either. This is a good album, I like Chris Stapleton as a musician, but for this genre, while it’s really good, it’s also overhyped. I also think there’s a certain storytelling element lacking here that’s usually found on the best country albums. There’s a musical theme, but not quite the lyrical one I want.

Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled Stapleton swept the CMAs. A talented songwriter for pop-country artists who’s also immersed in the bluegrass and traditional country worlds yet is not a pure traditionalist is probably the only workable bridge between the underground and the mainstream, and as I wrote yesterday, Stapleton’s wins give country fans more hope than we’ve had in a decade.

TravellerBut as for the album itself – for me, it’s a mix. Stapleton’s voice is a bit like Travis Tritt with a twist of Sam Cooke or maybe even Leon Bridges. But while those folks are great and I wish I could stretch a high note like that, it’s not what you expect. If you don’t mind that, if all you want is great music regardless of type, very cool, definitely put the album in your heavy rotation. I certainly enjoy it. I like this album – I’m just reviewing it as a country album. And Stapleton himself, who’s been in Southern rock and bluegrass bands, both genres that I love, has said he doesn’t want to stay in one box.

Producer Dave Cobb can do no wrong, and the album is well produced with a good vision. It’s a little slicker than Cobb’s work with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Nikki Lane, Shooter Jennings, etc., but a good vision nonetheless.

My two favorite songs are “Fire Away”, co-written with Danny Green which shows off Stapleton’s wide range and solid tenor voice while staying in a country style, and “Whiskey and You,” co-written with Lee Thomas Miller, and recorded previously by Tim McGraw and Jason Eady. Eady’s cover is one of my favorite songs. Great guitar on both.

“Parachute,” co-written with Jim Beavers, feels like a Bob Seger tune covered by Chris LeDoux. Southern rock, not country, but I dig it.

I really want to like “More of You.” It’s so close to being my favorite, but ultimately misses the top tier. I love the songwriting, the slow melody, the beautiful vocal duet with his wife Morgane, and the Willie Nelson style harmonica. What I don’t love, oddly enough, is the mandolin. Just lightly strumming away on the same couple chords the whole time, it gives the song a high pitch that makes it feel too light. It also feels bluegrass, and while I love bluegrass, that doesn’t seem what this song wants. It should’ve been an octave lower on an acoustic guitar, I think. But I will say this, it grows on me every time I hear it.

The only song I straight up don’t like is “Tennessee Whiskey,” a cover of the Dean Dillon/Linda Hargrove song. I LOVE the song. I heard Jamey Johnson sing it live last month, and it was amazing. I sing it to my girlfriend. Hat’s off to George Jones. But this is a bizarre bluesy cover. Why cover a country classic like a blues song… on a country album? It’s talented, but it feels very out of place. And Stapleton can certainly sing smoothly enough to nail a “smooth as Tennessee whiskey” version.

“Traveller” is a good album. You should buy it. It’s the CD Travis Tritt wishes he had  released in the 1990s – he could have done that great cover of “Was It 26”. In a broader sense, it’s certainly another Americana triumph for Dave Cobb. I think it’s immensely overhyped, but it is good, I will listen to it again, I would love to see Stapleton live, and I am so grateful for all that it has accomplished for true fans of true country music. Trigger said it best: “It certainly is something to be taken as a very good sign, even if you’re just ho hum on Stapleton.” Yup, that’s me, but I’ll echo this as loudly as I can: “It’s a win for music of more substance, regardless of who made it, and what style it is.”

Who is Chris Stapleton?

Last night, country rocker Chris Stapleton took the 2015 CMA Awards by storm, shoving bro-country and country (c)rap out of the way to win Male Vocalist of the Year, New Artist of the Year, and with best-in-the-business producer Dave Cobb, Album of the Year for May’s “Traveller.”

Chris Stapleton straddles country and Southern rock, and previously, bluegrass. So he’s not strictly country – we’re not talking outlaw style like Sturgill Simpson or a traditionalist like Dwight Yoakam – but he can write and perform that way when he wants to, and he is damn good at what he does.

Despite the “New Artist” tag, you’ve heard his work if you listen to either mainstream radio country or bluegrass. From 2008-2010, he was the lead singer for that great bluegrass band, the SteelDrivers. As a songwriter, he has six #1 hits, and wrote or co-wrote four songs I really enjoy: “Your Man” for Josh Turner, “Love’s Gonna Make it Alright” for the king, George Strait, “Drink a Beer,” the only recent Luke Bryan performance I can deeply respect, and “Whiskey and You” for Tim McGraw, though I prefer Jason Eady’s version. You might have also heard “Never Wanted Nothing More” for Kenny Chesney, “Come Back Song” for Darius Rucker, and “Crash and Burn” from Thomas Rhett.

He’s also got an amazing beard that can almost compete with Jamey Johnson’s.

Does this mean the tide is turning? Not on its own, no, but it helps. Kacey Musgraves did well (not as well, but well) at the 2013 and 2014 award shows, but still hasn’t had mass radio play (though both albums were #1). That said, when you add these awards to Sturgill Simpson’s quick rise to the top; Jason Isbell and Alan Jackson’s iTunes album sales in July; attention for quality artists from major industry figures like Zac Brown, Justin Timberlake, and Blake Shelton; and the quick downfall of Sony exec Gary Overton after disparaging independent music, fans of Americana and actual country music have more momentum and more cause for hope than at any time in the past decade.

But remember: While Stapleton is authentic, he isn’t strictly country. As he told Rolling Stone, “I don’t like to put things in a box all the time. If I’m feeling like rock, we’ll do some of that, and if I’m feeling some other way, we might do some of that.” Look to him to make good music, but not to be a singular force that “saves” country radio or the industry.

I’ll have my review of “Traveller” in the next few days. Here’s one of last night’s duets between Stapleton and Justin Timberlake:

And here’s Jason Eady covering Stapleton’s “Whiskey and You”: