On Saturday night in Nashville, two of music’s most dynamic vocalists performed within walking distance of one another, as Adele headlined the first of a two-night stand at the Bridgestone Arena and Chris Stapleton wrapped up the second of his own multi-night engagement at the Ascend Amphitheatre. For Stapleton, the two sold-out shows represented a homecoming of sorts, the unofficial capper to a busy year of touring – he’ll play two more headlining dates and a Luke Bryan stadium gig ahead of the November 2nd CMA Awards, where he’s nominated for Entertainer of the Year.
While the spotlight-shy Stapleton may not be the traditional Entertainer nominee – a category that, in addition to the recorded work, places emphasis on the public profile – he certainly made the case Saturday night that he’s tops in the live format. Over an 18-song set made up of tracks off his debut album Traveller, songs from his time with the SteelDrivers and well-chosen covers, Stapleton captivated a passionate, often rowdy, crowd. Backed by his core group of wife Morgane, bassist J.T. Cure and drummer Derek Mixon, as well as steel great Robby Turner and producer Dave Cobb, Stapleton delivered his typically sturdy but exhilarating set: shredding away on an extended “Outlaw State of Mind”; raising the rebellious side of his voice for “Might as Well Get Stoned”; and ceding the spotlight to Morgane for her hypnotic interpretation of “You Are My Sunshine,” nominated at the CMAs for Musical Event of the Year.
But it was his cover of “Was It 26,” the Don Sampson song that Stapleton recorded for Traveller, that highlighted all of the things the stoic Kentucky native does so well, commanding a stage through sheer strength of his voice, a workingman’s determination and the power of a great song.
Originally cut by the Charlie Daniels Band for their 1989 Simple Man album, Daniels’ version rings as a cautionary tale. But Stapleton’s leans toward the ominous – as if there’s no lessons to be learned from a tortured past, and any redemption is a myth. The story goes that Sampson penned the song on a pizza napkin, but its lyrics are hardly throwaway, especially when delivered in Stapleton’s growl, both on the record and onstage. Wisely, he reinforced the punch of “Was It 26” by preceding it Friday and Saturday night with the SteelDrivers’ “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey,” another account of shit gone wrong because of too many drained bottles.
Fans, clearly aware of Stapleton’s pre-Traveller work, ate up the SteelDrivers nuggets, and hooted wildly during an abbreviated cover of “Free Bird” as a way to introduce his own “The Devil Named Music.” The mix of classic country, bluegrass and Southern rock all fit nicely into Stapleton’s wheelhouse, proving on Saturday night that since his CMA Awards sweep last November he’s played nearly every hand perfect. And unlike the narrator in “Was It 26,” there’s nothing to regret.