Stapleton packed his bags and headed south, where he spent several days co-writing with Leslie and checking out the city. Toward the end of his stay, he and Leslie visited a few publishing offices in Nashville. One of their stops was Sea Gayle Music, where Liz O’Sullivan — the company’s Senior Vice President — was impressed by the new kid in town.
“They just popped in to say hi, and Chris was standing behind Steve,” she remembers. “This is weird, but there was this intriguing thing about Chris. He had this really old soul. I said, ‘Do you write songs?’ and he said, ‘Yes ma’am.’ Later, he mailed me a CD of his songs. I listened to half of the first verse, then stopped it and called him. His mom answered the phone. When Chris called me back, I said, ‘You need to move to Nashville.’
He didn’t need much convincing. Weeks later, Stapleton headed to Tennessee for good, settling into a small garage apartment in the Forest Hills neighborhood and furnishing its 700 square feet with three belongings: a sleeping bag, an acoustic guitar and a sack full of clothes. He landed a publishing deal with Sea Gayle, too, signing the contract during his fourth day in town. Then, after using his first check to buy a futon and a TV, he got to work.
“I was so fascinated with the culture of writing songs,” he says, “that for the first three or four years, the thought of actually performing didn’t even cross my mind. I didn’t really play live; I just wrote. I got to go to work every day, sit in a room and make up songs. I was writing two or three songs or a day. That’s all I wanted to do. I thought, ‘This is my job, and it’s awesome.’”
“His dad’s a coal miner,” O’Sullivan points out. “Maybe it’s the result of watching his dad do backbreaking work, but Chris had this intense work ethic from the second he started. He’d write two songs during the day and one at night. We’d be sitting down in my office, and he would start scatting some lyrics and suddenly say, ‘I’ve gotta leave and go write this song.’ It was amazing to watch him. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. I’d go to meetings and tell them about this new writer I just signed, and this buzz went all around town. People were fighting over his songs. By the end of the first year, he’d gotten more cuts than some writers get in their whole career.”
There was a problem, though: Stapleton wasn’t just a writer. He was one of the best singers in Nashville, too, armed with a voice that could wail one minute and woo the next. It was a voice that showed off the range of his influences — the grit of Delta blues; the twang of classic country; the brawny, ballsy stomp of southern rock — and it deserved to be heard. At one point, O’Sullivan even invited Mike Dungan, the president of Capitol Records’ Nashville branch, to the Sea Gayle office, hoping he’d be so impressed with Stapleton’s chops that he’d offer to sign him on the spot. Which is exactly what happened.
“Chris played some songs for us,” she remembers of that meeting, “and Mike said, ‘Wow, you could literally sing the phone book and it would sound good.’ So Chris got out the White Pages out and flipped to a random page and started singing the names. It was hilarious. Like, Saturday-Night-Live-skit hilarious. Mike loved it, and he offered him a record deal that night.”
Stapleton signed with Capitol, but no material was released and the deal quickly fell through. This was still the early 2000s, when country megastars like Shania Twain ruled the roost. Record labels wanted pin-up singers who could churn out crossover hits, not left-of-center artists with biker beards and cult followings. Besides, Stapleton — who, in the years following his meeting with Dungan, would go on to write Number One songs for Kenny Chesney (“Never Wanted More”), Josh Turner (“Your Man”) and three others — hadn’t scored enough hits to earn a record deal that gave him complete creative control.
That control wouldn’t arrive until one decade later, when Mercury Nashville signed him to the deal that spawned Traveller. In the interim, though, Stapleton cut his teeth as the frontman of two very-different sounding bands: The SteelDrivers and The Jompson Brothers.