Chris Stapleton has been both an outsider and a stalwart of the Nashville songwriter lineup for several years, having written well over 170 songs, many of them recorded by the likes of Tim McGraw (“Whiskey and You”), George Strait, Dierks Bentley and even Adele. Earlier attempts at a solo work didn’t quite come together to his liking, but earlier this year he teamed up with noted producer Dave Cobb. Stapleton loved Cobbs’ work on the production helm of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the 2014 masterpiece from Sturgill Simpson. Now, with Traveller, Chris Stapleton has created a classic album in his debut as a solo artist.
As he did for Simpson, producer Cobb brings a singular authenticity to the recording. Stapleton writes highly personal, emotional songs that strip bare the listener’s heart. His own version of “Whiskey and You”, for instance, is understated to the extreme, so much that it runs counter to almost everything else being released these days. That’s what makes Stapleton so utterly compelling in his performance. On several of the tracks he is accompanied by his wife Morgane, a gifted singer in her own right who is presently working on her own album with Dave Cobb.
The album opens with the title tune; it’s an upbeat number backed by steel guitar and it exhibits a deceptively familiar country music soundscape. It’s an addicting composition, though, and you’ll find it stuck in your brain by the time you get to the next tracks. They present a different, deeper aspect to Stapleton, somewhat reminiscent of Sturgill Simpson, Waylon Jennings and George Jones: “Fire Away”, “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Parachute” are modern country classics written and sung from Stapleton’s deep centre. “Parachute”, particularly, showcases the strength and emotional conviction of a man who may well be country music’s next great singer.
The sheer loveliness of “More of You” is disarming; it may be one of the finest country love songs ever written. The track is performed with wife Morgane backing a vocal from Chris that is almost heartbreaking in its beauty. The song is a wonderful testament to the depth and range of Stapleton’s songwriting abilities.
“Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” brings to mind the songwriting talents of John Prine, still one of the finest roots writers of the past several decades.
“The Devil Named Music” might have come from any of the great outlaw country albums of the late 70s (Waylon, Willie, Kris etc) but that doesn’t make it any less current, or less potent for its sonic familiarity. The tune is a keeper, along with every one of the 14 tracks on this very accomplished recording.
For this listener the highlight of the album is “Was It 26”, both for its lyric invention and the musical arrangement – it’s a fitting complement to the psychedelic country of Metamodern Sounds and as good an example of where the new Nashville sound is headed: complex, mysterious and satisfying.
Traveller, is indeed, the finest debut album of 2015 and would be a standout album in any year of the past four or five decades.
Hear Chris Stapleton and his band live on Mountain Stage, courtesy of NPR