Not long after the Capitol deal fell through, Stapleton began spending his Thursday evenings writing songs with Mike Henderson.
“I’d take him over there every Thursday night and drop him off, so he could have his adult beverages while they worked,” says Morgane Stapleton, Chris’ wife and harmony partner. “Mike and Chris had a standing appointment for three or four years. They were a great team.”
The guys spent those evenings building up a catalog of murder ballads and bluegrass-influenced tunes. As their co-writing sessions continued, Henderson began talking about booking some gigs at a nearby VFW hall, just to have an excuse to play a few originals and maybe an Earl Scruggs cover or two. He also reached out to three friends — Mike Fleming, Tammy Rogers and Richard Bailey — and suggested they join. The whole crew got together at Henderson’s house one night to practice, and sparks flew as soon as Stapleton and Henderson began introducing their new tunes. The sound gelled quickly, and The SteelDrivers were officially formed.
“I was writing songs about killing people and burying them,” Stapleton remembers. “That’s what the SteelDrivers stuff was. It was a lot of tradition. But I was never gonna flat-pick a guitar as well as other bluegrass players could, and I was never gonna sing like other bluegrass singers could. I could only be me. I couldn’t be anything else. And that’s what The SteelDrivers stuff was, too. We were different.”
In other words, The SteelDrivers weren’t bluegrass traditionalists. They pushed the genre’s boundaries, with Stapleton’s frayed, fiery baritone leading the charge. They also toured heavily, earned three Grammy nominations and released a pair of albums during Stapleton’s time with the group, thrusting the frontman into the spotlight for the first time.
“I was producing a band called Rival Sons,” recalls Dave Cobb, who would later help bring Traveller to life, “and they played me some SteelDrivers songs one day. It freaked me out, to hear the power of that guy’s voice. It just utterly had my attention. I chased him for years after that.”
After a successful run, Stapleton quit The SteelDrivers in 2010. He doesn’t have a bad thing to say about his time with the band, but he does give the impression he wanted more control over his own life. He had married Morgane Hayes— a fellow songwriter who scored a Number One hit with Carrie Underwood’s “Don’t Forget to Remember Me” — in 2007, months before The SteelDrivers’ debut hit stores, and was gearing up for a performance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in July 2008 when he heard Morgane was pregnant with their first child. His reasons to stay in Nashville were growing fast, but so were his opportunities with the band. “The Devil Named Music,” a 1970s-influenced country-rocker from Traveller’s second half, finds him singing about that sort of limbo.
“Most of the song is all real stuff,” he explains. “The band had played some horse farm gig in Wyoming, then rented a minivan and driven God knows how many hours to Billings, Montana, because that was the closest airport. We checked into an airport hotel to get an hour of sleep in our shared rooms. Then we got up, went to the airport and checked in for a 5:30 a.m. flight, which was going to Salt Lake City. I don’t remember changing planes in Denver, because I was so whipped and punch drunk, but apparently we did. And then we got to Salt Lake City, which is 10,000 feet up in the air, and I weighed 300 pounds at the time, so it felt like torture. Then we played a gig. That’s what that song is about. I missed my kid and I missed my wife, and I was getting an idea of what it was like to be a touring musician.”
Years after the horse farm gig, Stapleton switched gears by launching The Jompson Brothers, a loud rock and roll outfit whose songs were, as he jokingly puts it, “mostly thinly veiled metaphors for sex and drugs.” They toured around in Stapleton’s truck and played shows that didn’t take the bandmates so far away from Nashville. Stapleton credits the band with forcing him to become a better electric guitarist, and the songs — which put a southern spin on the cock-rock of AC/DC and heavy-metal thunder of Led Zeppelin — stretched his voice, allowing him to push his melodies into the stratosphere. Although The Jompson Brothers were short-lived, the group helped give Stapleton the final push he needed to re-launch his solo career.