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.