"I was going to be completely elated if we sold 50,000 records and I got to make another record," Chris Stapleton admits during the newest episode of Walking the Floor, talking to Chris Shiflett about his own expectations for 2015's Traveller. One of the longer podcasts in Walking the Floor's catalog, Stapleton's interview covers his childhood in Kentucky, his decorated songwriting career and his unexpected transformation from a countrified cult favorite into a best-selling solo artist.
The episode's official premiere is below, following a list of highlights from the pair's conversation.
Stapleton's biggest guitar heroes are also some of his closest friends.
Asked to name his favorite guitarists, Stapleton lists Mike Henderson – his longtime writing partner, as well as a former member of the Steeldrivers – and NRBQ's Al Anderson. "These are guys that have been writing partners of mine for a long time," he says. "They're both guitar heroes of mine. I'm always trying to steal their stuff, because they have some of the coolest things."
Speaking of guitars, Stapleton really digs his cheap, battered acoustic.
Although he typically plays a Jazzmaster in concert, Stapleton finds himself using a different guitar for most of his writing. "I have a late-Fifties LG2 that's just beaten to pieces," he explains, "and I've written a bunch of songs on it. . .If I had to get rid of everything else, I'm probably keep that. It's my desert island guitar." Originally designed as a student model, the Gibson LG2 is shaped like a classical guitar. That said, the small-bodied instrument can still pack a punch. "My wife says it sounds like an AM radio or something," Stapleton adds.
Although he's written songs for hundreds of artists, Stapleton rarely tries to convince people to record his material. He leaves that job to the professionals.
"I'm not good at the sales portion," he admits. "There are the pluggers and the A&R people, and those people are invaluable to guys who are songwriters, who only want to write songs and not be responsible for selling things. Because that's what it is. It becomes a sales job after the creation part."
"We're all trying to get into the competition of making the loudest, most compressed thing we can, and that doesn't make a lot of sense to me."
Before recording Traveller, Stapleton made a previous solo album that remains unreleased.
"Me and Luke Wooten, who produced the Steeldrivers' records, we made another record," Stapleton says. This was two or three years before Traveller's release, and Stapleton had made a genuine fan out of Luke Lewis, the CEO of Universal Music Nashville Entertainment. "Then the Capitol/Universal merger happened," he explains, "and Mike Dungan took over for Luke. . .Mike came over and all of a sudden, he had so much to do." Dungan wasn't as thrilled about Stapleton's record as Lewis had been, and Stapleton found himself slowly coming to grips with the fact that his album would never be released. "I was 36 or 37 at the time," he says. "I was pretty sure I was on the chopping block, and I was gonna go back to writing songs, and that was gonna be fine." As a last-ditch effort, he recorded three new songs with producer Tony Brown, including the short-lived single "What Are You Listening To." That song didn't catch on, either. "The week my single died, my dad also died," he says. "So that just kind of flipped a switch for me. [I started thinking], what did my dad want me to do, musically? And that's where Traveller came about.
He's a longtime fan of producer Dave Cobb's work, particularly the Sturgill Simpson album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
"Sonically, modern records don't sound like that anymore," he says. "We're all trying to get into the competition of making the loudest, most compressed thing we can, and that doesn't make a lot of sense to me."
Stapleton's career-making version of the George Jones song "Tennessee Whiskey" was never supposed to be on the album.
"We were in Charlottesville, Virginia, playing a theater there," he says of the day he first covered "Tennessee Whiskey." While waiting for the venue's sound technicians to finish setting up the stage, Stapleton and company stumbled across their own version of the 1983 song. "We were all set up and ready to go, and they were still hooking cables up, so we were just goofing around and playing. [My bandmates] were playing a groove and I said, 'Whoa, let me layer this thing on top of this,' and I started messing up a George Jones song over top of it and I said, 'That's pretty fun; let's play it tonight.' So we did it that night, and we did it the next night, and we did it every night since."
Later, while recording Traveller with Dave Cobb and Vance Powell, "Tennessee Whiskey" made another accidental appearance. "It wasn't on the list of things we were gonna record for the record," he says. "We were warming up with it, and Vance and Dave had the presence of mind to have us in the red, like, 'We're gonna record this time. Here we go. Just in case.' And that's what that was."
The family that tours together stays together.
These days, the entire Stapleton clan hits the road together, with Stapleton's mother-in-law doubling as a certified home-school teacher for Chris and Morgane's children. "We very much have to have a teacher," Stapleton says. "It allows the year-round travel, with both of us being out here. You know how much touring can mean. . .you're not home. That was a goal – to have the family traveling thing, and [to reach that point] was a really cool thing, rather than me being gone all weekend long in a pickup truck. The kids get to see national monuments and museums. It's education you can't get in a book."
How does he keep his voice in shape? By knowing when to drink up and shut up.
"I don't do a lot of talking on tour," says Stapleton, who admits he rarely does vocal warm-ups to keep his throat in shape. Instead, he hydrates offstage and remains quiet until it's time to perform. "I just drink a lot of water and walk out there and open up my mouth and believe," he adds with a laugh. "Sometimes that works out and sometimes it doesn't. That's about it. Water. Laying off the talking."