When Guns N’ Roses announced that Chris Stapleton would be opening the Nashville stop of their Not in This Lifetime reunion tour, it appeared to be the unlikeliest of pairings. Last night onstage at Nissan Stadium, Stapleton himself admitted as much.
“When I was a kid, if you’d have told me I’d be up here playing before Guns N’ Roses, I’d have called you a liar,” said the singer, taking a breather after unleashing guitar fireworks during a blistering “Outlaw State of Mind.” That performance and “Might As Well Get Stoned” in particular illustrated how simpatico the connection between the rock & roll outlaws and the against-the-grain country singer really is. During “Stoned,” Stapleton let loose the blues-country equivalent of Axl Rose’s air-raid siren wail, while steel great Robby Turner played his guitar-hero foil, tilting his instrument precariously forward on its front legs. Stapleton, looking over at Turner, beamed. It was a moment of spontaneous emotion and theatrics, perfectly suited for a stadium stage and a Guns N’ Roses crowd that not only welcomed Stapleton, but, on the main floor, stood on their feet for the duration of his eight-song set.
Even with Stapleton playing before a hometown crowd, his supporting slot could have gone either way — falling on deaf, disinterested ears of fans with only the reunited Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan on their minds. As it was, inspired by the warm response, Stapleton gave arguably his performance of the year. He and his band, including vocalist wife Morgane, who worked in a few dramatic rock & roll hair flips of her own, were making their second appearance at the football stadium in a month’s time, having played CMA Music Festival in June. But while that set felt constipated by a short 25-minute time limit, Stapleton’s pre-Guns show had room to breathe.
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Dressed in a sweat-soaked black shirt and his usual crumpled cowboy hat — which recalled the one Rose wore during Guns N’ Roses’ notorious 1990 Farm Aid performance — Stapleton was at ease, working his way through tracks off his heralded debut album Traveller. A marvelous “Fire Away” was made all the more mesmerizing with the Tennessee sun setting behind him. At one point, Stapleton ceded the spotlight to Morgane to sing “You Are My Sunshine,” surely marking the first time in history that the traditional folk song was heard on a Guns N’ Roses tour.
By the time he wrapped with “Tennessee Whiskey,” and Stapleton’s sung band introductions — which are quickly becoming as much of a can’t-miss as any proper song — he had nailed the support act’s job of priming the crowd. But he also pulled off something unexpected: shining a light on the inherent overlap between the Guns N’ Roses fan base and his own. Because if the 38-year-old Stapleton, a dyed-in-the-wool country boy from Kentucky, was listening to Appetite for Destruction in his formative years — and being fortunate enough to live out his rock-star dreams onstage on Saturday night — it’s easy to bet his same-aged fans were too.
For their part, Guns N’ Roses nodded here and there at their Nashville environs since arriving in Music City earlier this week. Slash joined Brad Whitford and Derek St. Holmes onstage for a gig at local club Exit/In on Thursday, while McKagan bopped his way through the honky-tonk district, becoming a fan of local country singer John Stone in the process. At Nissan Stadium, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison played over the P.A., as an opening graphics montage flashed a neon country-and-western themed horseshoe and guitar logo. And, in one of his numerous costume changes, Rose himself went full-on cowboy, donning a hat and fringed jacket for the call-and-response centerpiece of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”