When Chris Stapleton was approached to make a country record for a major label, he said he’d have to think about it.
“It wasn’t something that was even on my brain at that point in time,” he recalls, modestly.
On Music Row, Stapleton is a very familiar face, and not just because of the impressive beard. Over the last few years, he’s written No. 1 hits for Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker and Josh Turner. Plus he’s had more than 170 cuts ranging from Adele to George Strait.
Although he believes he’s more of a music guy than an idea guy when it comes to songwriting, there’s a growl in his voice that makes you pay attention to every word. Thus, a Chris Stapleton solo album seemed like a natural step to Universal A&R executive Brian Wright.
Stapleton and Wright have been friends for about a decade and Stapleton thought their lunch was just a chance to hang out, so the offer caught him by surprise. After talking it over with his wife, Stapleton signed with Mercury Records. Publishers and fellow songwriters cheered, thinking that a legitimately talented artist was about to break through.
Stapleton grew up in Staffordsville, Kentucky; his father and both grandfathers were coal miners. He didn’t sing in the high school choir, preferring sports instead. In 1996, he studied engineering at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University – but it didn’t take. After a year, he moved back to Kentucky, where he continued his education and worked odd jobs around the Morehead area.
Shortly after he quit college in Kentucky, Stapleton moved into a communal living situation. Four people lived in the place, there was no air conditioning and his share of the rent was about $80 a month.
“It’s since been condemned and torn down,” Stapleton says. “But we played bluegrass and I really got heavy into it. It was more of a modern bluegrass – Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott. I loved Tony Rice and New Grass Revival. We listened to John Hartford a bunch. We’d sit around and pick and have a good time every night. That’s where the discovery of that kind of music came from. I didn’t really grow up with that kind of music.”
Through a friend at Morehead State University, Stapleton got in touch with songwriter Steve Leslie, who wanted to help an aspiring songwriter from that area. Stapleton submitted a few songs and Leslie heard potential. After three months of making trips back and forth from Nashville, Stapleton returned to Music City with two months of living expenses as a gift from an encouraging uncle.
“I moved to town with a chair, a sleeping bag, a sack full of clothes, a recorder and my guitar,” Stapleton says. “I didn’t want a cell phone. I didn’t want someone to be able to get a hold of me, or know where I was, at any point in time. I wanted to be able to throw all my stuff in my car and leave.”
The move paid off. Within the week, Stapleton signed a publishing deal. Rising to the occasion, he started writing two or three songs a day.
Stapleton’s bluegrass education served him well as a co-founder of The SteelDrivers, a Grammy-nominated band that released their debut album in 2008. With gritty vocals and a habit of killing off characters, Stapleton served as one of the band’s lead singers and principal songwriters.
After two albums, Stapleton left The SteelDrivers and briefly played in a loud garage band called The Jompson Brothers. Now he’s focused on the country album, which hasn’t come out yet.
As if he’s setting up a joke, Stapleton remembers label head Luke Lewis’ response to the project: “I love it, but I’ve got to tell you, I’m not going to be here next week.”
Following a merger of Universal and EMI’s labels in Nashville, Stapleton was sent back to the studio to record additional material. Last July, he sent out his first single, “What Are You Listening To.” He made the rounds at country radio, meeting programmers and eating steak dinners. But despite positive notices, the thoughtful mid-tempo song failed to crack the Top 40. There was no follow-up, although he remains on the label’s roster.
“It did what it did, and here we are,” Stapleton says. Diplomatically, he chalks up his current situation as downtime, then adds, “We’re still working on it and figuring out a plan. I’m still writing and making music, and writing for other people. It’s all one pot to me. When the right door of opportunity opens, we’ll walk through that.”