In the world of star making there are numerous coalescing fantasies. One, the illusion of the unknown talent, the penniless artisan, toiling away at their craft year after fruitless year, finally being discovered playing in a dive for beer money. Or that of a tween diamond, lost in the rough of internet obscurity — the Bieber ether — posting a video of themselves singing their favorite boy band tune, possessing a modicum of talent and a fair share of pubescent naiveté.
One tale that is rarely told is that of the industry insider that finds their way in through the back door, working hard from the mailroom of obscurity to the corner office of notoriety. It's a common story, particularly in the country music world, where legends like Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Kris Kristofferson all spent years writing for other established artists. It, unfortunately, lacks all of the classist appeal of the rags to riches fable that we are assured comes with every presentation of a new star.
Enter Chris Stapleton, who has not been plugging away at becoming the Next Big Thing for decades. He didn't perform a pitch-perfect rendition of "Drunk in Love" on American Idol or post bedroom videos of himself doing his best Aguilera frills and falls to a One Direction ditty.
Stapleton is a highly respected Nashville songwriter with six number one singles under his belt. Chances are you've even unwittingly heard a Stapleton song. He co-wrote "If It Hadn't Been for Love" on Adele's 21. He penned "Drink a Beer," made popular by Luke Bryan, the video for which Stapleton sits just back and to the left of Bryan, cloaked in the shadows and coming in with the higher harmony, his rich smoker's croon embarrassing the nasal nicety of Bryan's aw shucks delivery. He also authored Thomas Rhett's "Crash and Burn," a tune that fudges the ever-dissolving line between cracker R&B and country and utilizes the "Uh!" and "Ah!" of Sam Cooke's "Chang Gang," a tie that binds it back to Stapleton's joining of sultry southern soul and hardcore honky tonk on his newly Grammy-ed album Traveller.
Ironically, the appeal of Traveller, Stapleton's first solo effort, lay in it not being a hearty regurgitation of the classic country requisites of pedal steel, acoustic guitar and tears-in-my-beer pageantry. It draws from all of these sonic staples of the genre, utilizing a live backing band and a handful of songs name-checking the amber-enablers of beverages, but it also ties in Seger-esque storytelling (that's Bob, not Pete) and his driving Detroit style ("Parachute"), saying nothing of the similarity of their voices. Hank Jr.'s rock 'n' roll-your-own attitude is present in several of the tunes as well, particularly, the "Country Boy Can Survive"-sounding "Nobody to Blame," as well as in the grain of Stapleton's voice, which, I can't believe I'm gonna write this, sounds like the best qualities of Kid Rock's country offerings, another native Detroiter.
Traveller throws in several rolling soul numbers, including a reworking of George Jones' classic "Tennessee Whiskey," the title track, album closer "Sometimes I Cry" and my favorite "Fire Away," the chorus of which has nearly identical lyrics to Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." These entries all chart new territory into white knuckle country-soul balladry, a style that has been prevalent in past country artists like Mickey Gilley, Charlie Rich, Bobby Bare, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson but are put to great use by Stapleton and his rafter-rattling range, helping to etch out his own style.
Traveller, producer Dave Cobb's throwback techniques and the shifting duality of Nashville – their growing willingness to place traditionalists like Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves and Stapleton alongside the carbonated rosters that rake in the Walmart money – are attempts to return to a more sincere sound of heartbreak, songs that are companions to drinking and loneliness, active activators of that high, lonesome feel. Rather than fun little packages of beat and banality that will be overplayed, exploited and discarded after they've reached market saturation and become inevitably unlistenable, these labored tunes are compiled from 15 years of Stapleton archives.
Nashville's championing of these latter day revivalists is surely motivated by profit; fearing the embarrassment of losing another Willie or Waylon to their desire for making records their way, becoming legends in the process, or encouraging another Bakersfield; a satellite industry that bucks Nashville trends and in so doing pits the country music enclave against somewhere less industrial and more sincere. However, if it just so happens that the Music Machine's interests align with those of folks that actually like country music made before Miley Cyrus, we have nothing to gain but sincere storytelling and contributions to the canon from fine, pedigreed artists, the ranks of which Stapleton can count himself a member.