In Chris Stapleton's new song, "Nobody to Blame," the narrator's wife shreds their wedding photo, breaks his fishing rods, burns his guitar and pours his good whiskey down the drain. "Turned my life into this country song," he sings, mocking his own misery.
In the real world, Stapleton's reputation as a first-class writer of hard-times, classic-themed country songs is poised to turn his life into a rock star's. After a few warm-up dates in March, the Kentucky native kicked off his tour supporting his upcoming debut album, Traveller, with a rugged set opening for Eric Church at Boston's TD Garden Thursday.
Church is seemingly one of the few contemporary country stars who hasn't yet recorded a tune bearing Stapleton's stamp. The 37-year-old songwriter can count credits on hits by Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, George Strait, Darius Rucker and many more. But his late-blooming debut, produced by hot-streak man Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Jamey Johnson), might have more in common with the soulful Tulsa sound of the 1970s than the shimmer of new Nashville.
Playing in a tight scrum at the lip of a completely bare stage, the guitarist, his two-man rhythm section and his harmonizing wife, Morgane, came across like they were in mid-tour form. Over nine songs in 40 minutes, they played as though they were tearing the roof off a little roadhouse, not a cavernous arena where the headliner's fans were still looking for their seats.
The band followed set opener "Nobody to Blame" with the title track to Traveller. It's an instant classic, a mid-tempo melody on which Morgane testifies like Bonnie Bramlett.
"Where's my George Jones fans out there?" Stapleton called out into the dark, introducing his torch-y cover of "Tennessee Whiskey," which owed almost as much to Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind" as it did to the Possum. "I happen to know if you're an Eric Church fan, you're a whiskey fan as well."
Brown liquor comes up as a lyrical prop so many times on Traveller, it's almost a relief to see how composed Stapleton is onstage. With his prodigious beard and hair blanketing his denim jacket, he joked that he had to remember how to play another cover, which he called a simple country shuffle. The song, muscled up like a pro wrestler in a rocking chair, was Tom Petty's "You Don't Know How It Feels."
"Still with me?" Stapleton asked the Church fans jammed up to the stage on the General Admission floor. The few in the rafters who hadn't moved to the edge of their seats surely did so on "Sometimes I Cry," the live cut that closes the new album. Fast becoming a signature song, it's a Bobby Bland-style belter on which Stapleton lets loose his rawest, scale-busting blues shout. Laying out for the song, Morgane goofed with a camerawoman at the back of the stage, lip-syncing the leaping hallelujah notes in her face as she tried to take pictures of the musicians.
The band wrapped its compact set with "Outlaw State of Mind," a song that shifts from the stark sound of a prairie showdown to hard-edged Southern rock. Stapleton may be emerging as Nashville's latest outlaw, but he'll soon find himself courted by the in crowd.