Makin’ Stuff Up: A Different Take on Chris Stapleton

Photo by Becky Fluke

It tickles me when a truly gifted artist, especially one who’s been making quality music for years, finally receives long-overdue recognition. 

Videos by American Songwriter

In 1989, I cheered when Bonnie Raitt became an “overnight” Platinum-selling Grammy winner — after two decades of critical acclaim and public apathy. In the late ‘90s, Sony Records took a flyer on a veteran, many-times-rejected Texas trio. Pretty much every know-it-all on Music Row was certain that an anachronistic name, image, and musical style would keep Dixie Chicks exiled to county fairs and off of mainstream-country radio. Instead, those girls blasted fresh oxygen into the airwaves and attracted hordes of new fans to the genre. The Longhorn was forced to put crow on the menu. It was fun watching all those A&R geniuses picking feathers out of their teeth.

When David Letterman gave Chris Stapleton a spot on one of his last Late Shows, I tuned in with eager anticipation. I’d been rooting for Chris since 2001 when, with the encouragement and assistance of my friend Steve Leslie, the former ice-delivery man arrived in Nashville from Lexington, Kentucky. “At that point,” Leslie now chuckles, “Chris wasn’t even aware that writing songs was a career option.”

Leslie schooled quick-study Stapleton on the basics of the biz and hooked him up with Sea Gayle music, where professional manager Liz O’Sullivan diligently began booking co-writes for him. By the time Chris scored his first chart-topper with Josh Turner’s “Your Man,” major labels had come a-courtin’. However, he didn’t exactly fit the lean, male-model mold of the new-millennium country stud. Leslie recalls standing in the Pancake Pantry line with Stapleton when the call came. “Well, if they don’t know what to do with me by now,” Chris mumbled into his cell, “I don’t need to be over there.” “Over there” was Capitol Records. Then, showing not a dollop of disappointment, Stapleton pocketed his phone.       

Following stints with The Steeldrivers and The Jompson Brothers, 13 years after coming to town, Mercury finally gave the now long-in-the-tooth cat a shot. A stiff debut single and one abandoned album project later, Chris Stapleton was about to go solo on network television. Letterman gave him the big build up and …

Standing like a portly, jean-jacketed statue, eyes fixed on the neck of his Fender Jaguar, as if he was a beginning guitarist uncertain of his finger positions, Stapleton rasped the title track from his soon-to-be-released debut solo LP. He sang and played well. Flawlessly, in fact. But, with its predictable chord changes, sing-song-y melody and simplistic, repetitive lyrics, “Traveler” sounded like a throwaway he’d tossed off in a couple-a minutes and never went back to tweak. I felt let down, to say the least.

Soon, Chris Stapleton was everywhere: all the late night shows, Saturday Night Live, dueting with Justin Timberlake and winning Album of the Year at the CMAs, performing as part of the Grammy tribute to B.B. King alongside Bonnie Raitt and Gary Clark Jr. (Traveller was also named American Songwriter’s No. 1 Album of 2015.) Every performance left no doubt — the guy can sing the lights out. I mean, none other than Adele gushed over his voice from the stage of Royal Albert Hall! Yet, I kept wondering why I wasn’t moved. 

“I try to sing with as much belief as I can …” Stapleton explained in Rolling Stone. And, therein lies the problem. If a singer genuinely believes in what he’s singing, he doesn’t have to “try.” Despite what too many people assume, volume and intensity do not equal true passion. Although Stapleton nails every high note and strategically placed vocal run, his technical skill seems less about expressing the song lyric and more about bringing his worshipful audience to its feet. If George Jones’ soul manages to cut through all that Billy Sherrill schmaltz, you’d think Stapleton’s stripped-down cover of “Tennessee Whiskey” would reveal some real emotion. Instead — I’m sorry — it sounds more like a performance concocted to turn chairs on The Voice

Certainly, Stapleton provides a welcome respite from the smoke machines, bedazzled ball caps, and narcissistic party anthems that have dominated country for far too long now. Thus, the media genuflects to his anti-glitz, Everyman countenance. However, is Chris Stapleton really the Messiah, risen to restore integrity to the genre? (He is, after all, partially responsible for Luke Bryan’s “Drink A Beer.”) 

I can’t help but recall the early ’70s, the heyday of Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Cat Stevens — to name but a few. Not only did every one of those artists express an individual style and point of view, they all composed songs destined to become classics. In that stellar era of singer-songwriter-dom, would Rolling Stone have given Chris Stapleton more than a blurb in Random Notes? If Stapleton has penned a “Both Sides Now” or a “Fire and Rain,” I have yet to hear it. And, next to Tom Waits, Bob Seger, or John Fogerty, would those showy, overwrought vocals actually sound soulful?

Artists who change the world connect directly with a mass audience at its rawest, core emotional level. Like Stapleton, Hank Williams, Elvis, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Merle Haggard, and Nirvana demanded attention when most everyone else was easy to ignore. Now that the enigmatic, uber-talented Chris Stapleton stands in the spotlight, here’s hoping he will begin applying his enormous gifts to writing some great songs and delivering them with less flash and more heart.

Robert Ellis: Robert Ellis