Singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton started drawing attention almost immediately when he first surfaced almost a decade ago as the lead singer and chief songwriter for the Nashville-based progressive bluegrass band the SteelDrivers.
Bluegrass had always been known for singers who could create the "high lonesome sound" that stretched back to the man widely acknowledged as its first and most important star, Bill Monroe.
Instead, Stapleton's raspy voice and blues inflections seemed to have more in common with Ray Charles, an artist who obliterated many preconceived notions about country music with his "Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music" recordings in the early 1960s.
For Stapleton, it's a natural outgrowth of his upbringing in eastern Kentucky.
"My dad loved listening to Waylon and Willie and all the outlaws, and he also was a big fan of blues and R&B, so that's what I heard growing up," Stapleton, 37, said recently during a quick swing through Los Angeles on a trip that included a private showcase in West Hollywood.
Stapleton is readying the release of his debut solo album, "Traveller," due May 4, and he's continuing to swim against the country tide. The album has none of the party anthems or come-ons to leggy women that have made modern-day superstars of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton and numerous other male country singers.
In "Tennessee Whiskey," a Dean Dillon-Linda Hargrove song that was a 1983 hit for George Jones, Stapleton makes it sound like something more akin to the classic R&B and soul of Memphis' Stax Records. And the lyric counters the deluge of consequence-free imbibing that populates so many recent country hits.
I've looked for love in all the same old places
Found the bottom of a bottle always dry
But when you poured out your heart I didn't waste it
'Cause there's nothing like your love to get me high
"Chris Stapleton is an artist that defies category," says Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville, parent of the Mercury Nashville label that's releasing "Traveller." "His songwriting and his raw, bluesy voice are seamlessly intertwined and inseparable. He doesn't fit into any mold, formula or algorithm for a hit-single-driven format.
"When you are affected by someone like Chris Stapleton," Mabe added, "you don't sign him and market him to be like what the marketplace currently offers, you bet that he has the power to change the marketplace."
In fact, Stapleton is equal parts Nashville outsider and insider. He co-wrote one of Bryan's biggest hits, "Drink a Beer," a song that pays homage to a departed friend, and you'll also find his name on the writing credits for Kenny Chesney's "Never Wanted Nothing More," Darius Rucker's "Come Back Song" and George Strait's "Love's Gonna Make It Alright." One of his songs written for the SteelDrivers, "If It Hadn't Been for Love," was also covered by Adele on a deluxe version of her blockbuster album "21."
Yet for all the mainstream success that several of his songs have enjoyed, on his album he sounds more in step with the left-field likes of Kacey Musgraves, who just won the Grammy Award for country album of the year for her offbeat debut, "Same Trailer, Different Park," and recent best new artist nominee Brandy Clark. Both are singers and songwriters who demonstrate that they understand and respect country music tradition but have their own ideas about how to keep it relevant in a new century.
In addition to writing or co-writing 12 of the album's 14 songs, he also co-produced it with Dave Cobb, who has worked with Shooter Jennings (Waylon's son), Jamey Johnson and the Secret Sisters, among other outside-the-mainstream roots music artists.
"The biggest, baddest country voice you've ever heard," Rolling Stone Country recently wrote of Stapleton, quickly adding, "No, really."
On one of Stapleton's previous treks west, he connected with L.A. musician Dan Wilson to co-write "When the Stars Come Out," a song about the Southland's status as a celebrity magnet. He said that on a stroll from his hotel to a restaurant, it struck him that "everyone looked like 'somebody.' They all looked famous. They all looked like stars.
"I began to toy with the notion that maybe all of the L.A. stars are walking around," he said. "And perhaps some nights, they shine brighter than the city lights. That was the thought I brought to Dan the next morning."
The song is not a predictable condemnation of a business that raises up and then tears down such celebrities with equal ease but an even-keeled observation that leaves any judgment to the listener.
With his shoulder-length hair and long, scraggly beard, Stapleton looks like he'd fit right on "Duck Dynasty." But there's a gentleness to his demeanor that belies the rough-and-tumble mountain man visage.
On the heels of the lackluster response to his debut single "What Are You Listening To" in 2013, Stapleton's father died, leading him toward the reflective tone that informs much of "Traveller" and inspired its title track:
I'm just a traveller on this Earth
Sure as my heart's behind the pocket of my shirt
I'll just keep rolling till I'm in the dirt
'Cause I'm a traveller, oh, I'm a traveller
"I wanted to make a record that my dad would have liked," Stapleton said.
As for the current direction of country music that's generated debate over repetitive, cliched themes — one enterprising amateur critic has racked more than 4½ million views for a YouTube mash-up of six recent-vintage country hits that sound remarkably similar — Stapleton takes the diplomatic approach.
"All that means is that a song just maybe isn't for you or isn't for me," Stapleton said. "Anyone who says it's so easy to write a country hit and that it's just a formula — well, try it sometime.
"If it was that easy, everybody would be doing it."
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