Chris Stapleton:
The TVD Interview

East Kentucky native Chris Stapleton is an anomaly in today’s commercial country milieu. While his songs have been recorded by some of the genre’s biggest stars—Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Josh Turner, Darius Rucker—his own music is anything but mainstream. Absorbing the best of country’s past, his powerful voice reveals a prominent soul influence.

If Otis Redding had made a country album, it might have sounded a lot like Traveller, Stapleton’s solo debut. Garnering nearly universal acclaim, it is one of the best major label male country releases in recent memory.

He’s also becoming a regular on the talk show circuit, with appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman, The View and Late Night With Seth Meyers. TVD sat down with Stapleton before his appearance at Louisville’s Forecastle Festival to talk about recording the album, vinyl, and Tennessee whiskey.

The sound and writing on your album really stands out against most of the current country field. Was this your intention?

I was just trying to make the best record I could make. I had a single that died in October 2013 and then my dad passed away the same month. It’s part of life but it’s a rough thing and it flipped a switch in me. It helped me focus on what I was doing and what kind of music I wanted to make. It also made me think of the music I grew up on.

Then I heard Sturgill (Simpson)’s last record and I really liked the sound of it. That made me seek out (producer) Dave Cobb. I thought, “Here’s a guy who makes records the way I like them to sound.” It sounds like things I grew up on and I didn’t know that (type of production) still existed. It’s something that, sonically, I chased down unsuccessfully for fourteen years. I met with Dave and we liked each other tremendously so we started to make the record.

Again, I am struck by how different the album sounds than what commercial country radio is playing, but yet you’re having success…

Actually, the single we had on the radio didn’t work but, yeah, people like the record. I don’t know how to quantify that into what’s making the album work.

You’ve had several songs covered by artists who do get a substantial amount of airplay on country radio. What do you think it is in your songwriting that appeals to them? Have you asked them?

No, I’ve never asked that question, “Why do you like this?” (laughs), but I’m thankful that they do. The vast majority of my income over the last fourteen, fifteen years has come from being a songwriter. That’s allowed me to do other things creatively, like being in bands and make records a little outside of what (the mainstream) is. I’ve always walked in doors that were open and if someone wants to record one of my songs, I’m certainly thankful for it.

Do you listen to commercial country radio?

I try not to listen to radio in general, for creative reasons. I never want to be copying anything. If you listen to too much of the new stuff, it shows up (in your songwriting). I listen to old things.

Speaking of old things, you cover “Tennessee Whiskey” on Traveller. Whose version of it had you heard?

The version I grew up on was David Allan Coe’s. That’s the one that I knew the most. Certainly, George Jones’ version is the more popular one. I think he had the hit on that. We played Willie Nelson’s picnic this year and David Allan Coe sat on the side of the stage as we did that song. I just kept thinking, “This is kind of weird. We’re playing this song as David Allan Coe is sitting over there…”

Was vinyl important to you growing up?

Sure. I wouldn’t say I’m a record collector like my bass player (J.T. Cure). I know guys like that who are so into it that they weigh their records. (laughter) I’m not like that. We have vinyl at the house and a record player. I enjoy it. I enjoy albums as pieces of art, which is something that people don’t talk about a lot. It used to be more of a visual thing, holding the cover. We lost that in the digital age and I think that’s a big reason for the resurgence in vinyl. You can connect with it much more. It does sound better, I agree with that wholeheartedly.

(Playing vinyl) is an active listening experience and I talk about that frequently. We’ve gotten into a passive listening culture with music that is not necessarily healthy to me. It’s the same thing with singles vs. albums. We’ve got this “fast food” mentality where we focus on the one thing. It’s not good for audience building when we don’t think of albums as a piece.

When you were sequencing Traveller, were you thinking about that, about how it would flow start to finish?

Oh, yeah. When we got to the end of it, we called in Anderson East and another friend of mine, neither of whom had heard any of the tracks. I sat them down with a glass a wine and legal pad, played them the tracks and said, “Let’s sequence this thing.” The final track sequence is basically what those guys came up with. Dave and I were so in it at that point that we felt fresh perspectives from people we trust was the best way to go.

In the age of the iPod shuffle, album sequencing has become an under appreciated art. Sometime when I hear a classic song on the radio, my mind will automatically go to what the next track is on the respective LP.

Even the amount of space between the tracks is important.

I hope we can get back to that. As you said, albums are pieces of art and we need to get back to appreciating them as such and not as mere commodities.

I think albums are better for guys in my shoes who are trying to build an audience. We can go play a show and there is no “one song” that the audience is waiting for and has to sit through the rest of them. They like all of them because they’re invested in the album. So for them, I’ve got one record instead of fourteen singles.

Was there a certain album that captured your attention growing up?

Yes, and I’ve referenced this record before. Sometimes it throws people, but Tom Petty’s Wildflowers is one of my favorite records of all time. When I think of all the things we’ve been discussing—sequencing, sonics, rocking to acoustic—in my mind, that’s the record that sets the bar.

He makes it look so easy. You listen to his work and think, “I can write a song like that,” but you can’t. (laughter)

That’s the true mark of a great songwriter, to make it sound simple.

Some of those songs sound like they’ve been around forever.

Yes, absolutely.

It’s always interesting to learn what records resonate with people. Listening to WFPK yesterday, I heard Houndmouth doing a guest DJ session and they played Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.” I thought, “Really?!? ‘Margaritaville’?” Later that day, they used it as their walk-on music for their Forecastle set, so it must have a special place in their hearts.

Well, it’s one of those songs that was never a huge radio hit. It went to #15 or #16 on the national chart but it has evolved this life of its own. It’s easy to discount it because it has that life now but it’s an influential thing. It’s part of the fabric of music now and that’s powerful stuff.

I’ve done a few of those guest DJ things, compiling a playlist, and inevitably, once it’s done I think, “Oh no, I forgot all this other music I love!” You just can’t fit it all into one session.

You are opening for many different artists on this tour. Does your music go down well with all the crowds?

Nobody’s thrown anything at us yet (laughter), so hopefully we’re doing okay. You never can tell. Some times are definitely better than others. I think we both tick people off and find new fans everywhere we go. I think there’s two kinds of music, good and bad. If somebody likes something, they’re going to like it (regardless).

I recently spoke with Billy Joe Shaver about the “Outlaw Movement” of the ‘70s and he said he felt more like an outcast than an outlaw. Did you ever feel like that, like you working outside of the system?

I don’t know. I’ve always felt welcomed as a songwriter and I certainly don’t feel like I fit into any one box there. I try to be a nice guy and everybody’s nice in return…

The Golden Rule works well!

Yeah, it does, to some degree. Some people you’re just not going to get along with but I’ve been fortunate to not have many of those scenarios. I always try to find common ground. There’s always commonality and that commonality is music.

Nashville has experienced explosive growth over the last five years. Has that affected your writing in any way?

Well, it’s affected the traffic around my house! (laughter) I feel like I live in Atlanta now. We’re on the road a lot currently, so I am not as affected by it. It’s an ever-changing thing anyway, what your role in music is. It’s always evolving, regardless of who’s moving to town or away from town. You just do your own thing and hope you can find a spot.

For Record Store Day 2015, Mercury released a special 10” 3-song EP of songs from Traveller and it was an extremely well-done package. They used the old 78-era Mercury label and the pressing sounds great. Were you involved in its design and execution?

Yes! I really dug in and said, “If we’re going to do something for Record Store Day, we’ve got to make it really cool.” It’s one of those times where you’re spending more money than you’re making but the result is worth it. We really geeked out on it, making it look like a vintage record. I have my own personal stash of them and I will pull out a few copies to sell at sold-out shows as a special thing.

Chris Stapleton returns to Greater Nashville on September 27th, playing the inaugural Pilgrimage Festival in Franklin. There is also a conspicuous hole in his tour schedule for the week of the annual Americana Festival and Awards (September 15th-20th), so watch for updates.

Traveller is in stores now. On vinyl.

Chris Stapleton Official | Facebook | Twitter

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