When Chris Stapleton's debut album, Traveller, hit Number One on the charts in November, no one was more surprised than Stapleton himself. "It's wonderfully strange — not something I ever expected," says the 37-year-old country singer. Stapleton, who comes from a long line of Kentucky coal miners, spent 14 years in Nashville, briefly fronting a bluegrass band and writing hits for Tim McGraw, Luke Bryan and Darius Rucker, before making Traveller. The album sidesteps modern Nashville slickness in favor of classic barroom twang — including a cover of "Tennessee Whiskey," a 1983 hit for George Jones. Stapleton recently performed it with Justin Timberlake at the CMA Awards. "I love working with people, regardless of genre — country, rock & roll, whatever," Stapleton says. "I just called Justin, and he said yes. We spent a lot of time talking about music, especially Bill Withers."
Your influences are all over the map. Which album have you played more than any other in your life?
My favorite record of all time is Tom Petty's Wildflowers. I hold it as the standard — in terms of sonics, sequencing and songs. It shows that making a complete record is important, rather than just making a single. I think we've forgotten that a bit.
Merle Haggard has said he's sick of hearing about tractors, beer and the beach in country music. It seems like your album is proof we're moving on from bro-country.
Well, country music has always had tractors, beers and beaches. Hank Jr. and Buck Owens sang about that stuff. I get tired of people trying to dog out the radio for not playing this or that. There are lots of people who like what they play — otherwise, they wouldn't play it.
Your voice has been described in print as "100 proof" or "liquor-thick and three-drinks limber." What do you actually drink?
I like a bourbon from Kentucky called Colonel E.H. Taylor. It's kind of hard to find. I like most [bourbons], in fact.
You've been touring for many years. What's the worst gig you ever played?
There were a lot of rough neighborhoods in the South. At the time, you're thinking, "Man, this is the worst." Then a few years pass and you wear it like a badge of honor: "Hey, man, remember we were afraid we were gonna get stabbed, and there were gang signs everywhere and used condoms in the parking lot? That was fun."
What do you do when you're not making music?
I like to fish. I collect pocketknives. I inherited a nice collection from my father and grandfather. I was a bit of a pocketknife junkie for a while.
Among my dad's generation, when you gave another man a pocketknife as a gift, it was a show of respect. I'll still give someone the knife out of my pocket. It's harder nowadays, though — airplanes don't let you on with pocketknives anymore.
"Country music has always had tractors, beers and beaches. Hank Jr. and Buck Owens sang about that stuff."
You've said Traveller was inspired by a road trip you took just after your dad died in 2013. How so?
My wife bought me a 1979 Jeep Cherokee and we drove it through the desert in New Mexico, as kind of a head-clearing moment. We didn't plan on how cold it was gonna be. We were trying to stay warm and we had to swap out the battery at one point. But that part of the country is almost a spiritual place to be. I wrote the title song to Traveller in the desert.
Timberlake and Pharrell have both come to your shows. Has anybody else famous showed up?
Bill Murray showed up in Charleston, South Carolina. I was in a film with him years ago [Stapleton's former band the SteelDrivers were featured on the soundtrack to 2010's Get Low]. He's an enthusiastic music lover, so he really elevated the crowd. He's a bit of a hype man. We hung out after the show, and it was very interesting.
What did you guys do after the show?
We went to the place next door and stayed till it closed. I was drinking bourbon, I think he was drinking wine. The conversation ran the gamut — it was the kind of thing that could take a turn at any moment. He has a lot of interesting philosophies.
If you can imagine a conversation with a compilation of all of those characters he's played — from Caddyshack to Lost in Translation — then you can imagine a conversation with him. I wasn't gonna ask him for Caddyshack stories, though.
You've got a pretty powerful beard. How did that come about?
Probably laziness, more than anything. I used to get a lot of Duck Dynasty jokes there for a minute. I've had the beard for about a dozen years — my wife has never seen my chin. It's not quite ZZ Top, but I don't shave every day, either. It is what it is, and I'm OK with that.