“When you sign with a record label as a younger artist, they kind of own you and tell you what to do,” says Liz O’Sullivan. “The more success you’ve had, the more leverage you’ve got. Chris had written a lot of good songs by the time he got his second record deal, and by that point, a record deal wasn’t the end-all-be-all for him. He was either gonna do it his way, or not do it all. Plenty of people sell out in this business — sometimes you have to sell out, just to get your album released — but he wasn’t that kind of person. And the label wanted him so bad, they said, ‘Okay, you can do whatever you want. We’ll let you call your own shots, and you can make your record your own way.”
It was Brian Wright, an A&R man at Universal, who convinced Stapleton to take another shot at a solo career. They kicked things off with “What Are You Listening To,” a single that cracked the Top 50 during the summer of 2013. Things were looking good until the single started dropping off the charts that fall, and things got worse when Stapleton’s father passed away. Looking for a chance to clear his head, he booked a one-way ticket to Arizona and left town for a few weeks. Morgane and a family friend came along. In Phoenix, they picked up a 1979 Jeep Cherokee that Morgane had purchased online, knowing that a vintage car would give her husband something to think about besides death. She suggested they drive it all the way back to Tennessee. Stapleton didn’t think they’d make it that far — “I told them, ‘This is an old car, so we are gonna break down, we’re gonna be stranded on the side of the road somewhere and we are going to feel terrible about it,” he remembers — but he allowed himself to be talked into the idea. Days later, during an early-morning drive through the New Mexican desert, he sat behind the wheel and watched the sun rise over the mountains, a new song brewing in his head. By the time the sun had fully come up, he’d finished the lyrics for “Traveller.”
The car eventually made it home, losing both an alternator and a battery along the way. Back in Nashville, Stapleton — recharged and eager to get back to his solo career — began combing through the songs he’d written during his 14 years in Nashville. He wound up taking 12 of his favorites, along with covers of Don Sampson’s “Was It 26” and George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey,” to co-producer Dave Cobb, who booked nine days in RCA Studio A. They put together a band for the occasion, too, including Morgane — who softened her husband’s growl with harmonies on songs like “Fire Away” — and bassist J.T. Cure, who’d also played in The Jompson Brothers.
“I had worked on demo sessions with Chris before, but it was always just business as usual,” says Robby Turner, a legendary sideman who once played pedal steel for Waylon Jennings and The Highwaymen. “I knew he was great, but I didn’t know how great until I recorded with him. I was blown away by what I heard [at RCA]. It just sounded real. Chris can carry the torch of someone like Waylon, because he’s got the same ‘no BS’ approach to his music. When he sings the first line of a song, he convinces you that he’s lived it, and you believe him.”
There weren’t many overdubs. Instead, Stapleton and the band tracked most of the songs live, waiting until the mood was right before pressing “record.” The result is an album that covers as much ground as the cross-country road trip that inspired its title track. On the bare-boned “Whiskey And You,” Stapleton turns himself into a lonely drunk who’s learning the difference between hangovers and heartache. On “More Of You,” he serenades his wife over an old-school country waltz. “Parachute,” his children’s favorite song — “it’s fun to dance to,” says Morgane, who describes her son and daughter’s version of dancing as “running in circles and using chairs and couches as a jungle gym” — borders the world of raw, roaring rock and roll, and “When The Stars Come Out” tips its hat to 1970s California country-rock.
“When that guy gets behind a mic, he’s a monster,” says Cobb. “I remember going to see him play a little pizza place in Nashville one time. There was another band playing that night, and they’d obviously never heard of Chris before, and they were loading into the venue like they were badasses. They just had this attitude. During soundcheck, Chris got behind the microphone, just to check it, and he sang for one second and just shut down the place. He opened his mouth, and the rest of the musicians in the room went, ‘Oh shit.’ And that’s sort of how we felt in the studio, too.”
When Traveller hit stores in May, it debuted at Number Two on the country charts. Later, as spring gave way to the summer, those charts filled up with other songs Stapleton had written, too, including Thomas Rhett’s “Crash And Burn” and Gary Allan’s “Hangover Tonight.” Stapleton was suddenly competing with himself.
“It’s all part of one wheel for me,” he says, explaining that he still writes songs for outside artists whenever room opens up in his touring schedule. “Sometimes, you’ve gotta wear one hat more than you wear the other one. Sometimes, you just wear two hats at once. You have to make hay while the sun shines, so we’re trying to do that. We’re trying figure out what life is now. That’s always the case. You’re just figuring out what life is.”