"I like songs that make me feel tough. Like 'Back in Black.' You want to hear it again and get in a fight," says Chris Stapleton, seated in his management company's office next to his wife and onstage partner Morgane, who breaks up laughing at her husband's bravado in describing his song "Outlaw State of Mind."
"But not literally!" he quickly adds.
The almost sheepish addendum exposes the inherent dichotomy that is Stapleton, who this week released his debut solo LP Traveller, the most buzzed-about and fawned-over album since Sturgill Simpson's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. On the surface, with his Jamey Johnson beard, Johnny Paycheck hatband and snakeskin guitar strap (a buddy killed a rattler and made it for him special), he cuts an imposing figure, while his window-shaking voice, with all its volume and growls, could scare off burglars. But sit with him a while and the soft-spoken Stapleton reveals himself to be the nicest guy in the room.
Such polarity extends all the way into the Kentucky native's career too. While Traveller is full of the kind of traditional, organic country that purists long for, he's also written some of pop country's most radio-friendly hits: Thomas Rhett's "Crash and Burn," Darius Rucker's "Come Back Song," Kenny Chesney's "Never Wanted Nothing More" and Luke Bryan's "Drink a Beer," among them.
"I'm always trying to do as many different things as I can, just so when one is not doing so hot, maybe the other is still there," he says of juggling his roles as ace Nashville songwriter, in-demand backing vocalist (he most recently sang with Rhett on "Crash and Burn") and, now, solo artist.
With Traveller, however, the "debut artist" — at 37, he admits he's having a hard time with those words — finally has his own body of work on which to focus his many talents. He wrote or co-wrote all but two of the album's 14 tracks, like the stunning title song, the on-the-nose "Might As Well Get Stoned" and the rough and tough "Outlaw State of Mind." The two outside songs he did cut are bona fide classics: the oft-recorded "Tennessee Whiskey" and Charlie Daniels' "Was It 26," written by Don Sampson.
"I'm playing electric guitar, mandolin, acoustic guitar. I'm singing on it, singing harmony with myself in some places on it. It could not be more me," he says of making an album his own way, with only his touring band and producer Dave Cobb. "It's really easy to go out there — and I'm not knocking anyone — and hire guys to do all these things for you. But for me, this is a great representation of what you can come and see live, and possibly connect with."
Going against the Music Row standard and using his own band, including wife and backing vocalist Morgane, made the experience more comfortable for Stapleton, says Cobb, the producer behind Simpson's Metamodern Sounds and Jason Isbell's Southeastern.
"It felt more like a great hangout with your buddies," he says. "We booked a studio for noon and would start piling in at 1, 2, 3 o'clock, just hanging out and talking a bunch of shit. We'd order dinner, have a few drinks and it'd be about 8 at night. We'd record for an hour and it would be two or three master takes. It was really Chris's idea and it worked flawlessly. It was the right time to make those songs. He had a great sense of finding the moment. We probably wasted a lot of money we didn't need to waste, but the tracks came out amazing."
Indeed, Traveller is excellent and, gliding along on Cobb's breezy production, is an effortless listen. The album feels like a familiar classic, one that draws heavily on the late-Seventies sound Stapleton adores.
"If somebody tells me it sounds dated, I'd say that's great, as long as the date is 1978. My favorite things are from then, and why wouldn't you want to try to be like those things? Inevitably, it's just going to sound like me anyway," he says.
But for all its relaxed vibe, Traveller contains some heavy shit. "The Devil Named Music" calls out the hell that can be living on the road, "Might As Well Get Stoned" rings with resignation and "Sometimes I Cry" is tortured blues. But the album's true weeper and emotional core is "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore," which Stapleton wrote after taking note of his normally devout father skipping grace before a meal late in his life. (He died in October 2013.)
"It is in fact a weeper," agrees Stapleton, with a long pause. "If you've lost a parent or somebody that was instrumental in trying to lead you down the right path or raise you up in the world, that one will get you."
"Oh my god, that melted my face," says Cobb of the song's recording session, one of a few tracks Stapleton cut outdoors on the front lawn of a Nashville-area facility known as the Castle. The bulk of Traveller was recorded at historic RCA Studio A. "He had lost his father a year prior and it was hard for him to make it through it. We only did a couple takes, and the take that's on the record, he started choking up. You can hear it in the track. He was feeling it and everybody had goose bumps just witnessing. He was more than loaded with emotion that day."
While Stapleton is aware of, appreciates and has even helped create the populist fare of country radio, he has his own distinct view of who country music should appeal to. It's an outlook that helps explain songs like "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore" and "Might As Well Get Stoned."
"When I first got to town, the second guy I ever wrote with was Jerry Salley, who I wrote 'Outlaw State of Mine' with. He said, 'Man, country music is not for kids.' And I don't think it is," says Stapleton. "I wanted to make a pretty grown-up record, meant for grown-ups to sit around and listen to."
And at the end of the day, he doesn't care if some folks don't love Traveller.
"I'm a fan of polarization. If you make something that is palatable to everybody, it's like making vanilla ice cream, and I think we have enough of that," he says somewhat gruffly.
Until that good-guy side inevitably rears its head.
"But I'm not trying to insult anybody — music or ice cream."