“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.”