His look reads biker, but country star Chris Stapleton isn’t afraid to get in his feelings
Chris Stapleton didn’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes to write “Maggie’s Song,” a cut from the country star’s new album about a “fuzzy black pup” that he and his wife, Morgane, took home after finding the dog abandoned in a shopping cart in a PetSmart parking lot.
“It’s all true stuff,” Stapleton said the other day. “There’s no embellishment in it.”
Yet recording the song was a different story.
Conceived as a tribute to Maggie after she died last year at age 14, the tender, loping “Maggie’s Song” climaxes on a rainy Monday morning when the dog wakes up and finds she can’t stand. The narrator lies down next to her as she puts “her head on my hand like she’d done so many times,” and if you’re getting choked up just reading those lyrics, you can imagine how Stapleton felt in the studio.
“That one was hard to sing,” he said, the memory sharp even now. “I kept crying through a lot of it.”
As delivered by this 42-year-old father of five, “Maggie’s Song” vividly exemplifies the complex emotional character of Stapleton’s best music. He’s burly but soft. Tough yet vulnerable. A protector of his loved ones and a man in perpetual search of shelter.
“I’m no authority on masculinity, but I don’t feel un-masculine or embarrassed by having feelings,” he said. “In fact, I think it’s the most manly thing you can do.
“And if somebody wants to say something to me about that,” he said, chuckling, “we can talk about it outside.”
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Stapleton’s gentle-giant vibe helped bring him huge success when he emerged in 2015 — after years spent playing in bluegrass and Southern rock bands and writing behind the scenes for other Nashville acts — with his quadruple-platinum solo debut, “Traveller.” The LP, which like all of his music prominently features Morgane on backing vocals, was named album of the year by the Country Music Assn. and won a Grammy Award for best country album; his next two records, 2017’s “From a Room: Volume 1” and “Volume 2" — each full of grown-up songs that move beyond infatuation to ponder what happens when love endures — both entered the all-genre Billboard 200 chart at No. 2.
With as much Allman Brothers as George Jones in his blood, the bearded, scratchy-voiced Stapleton was viewed by many at the time as a welcome disruptor of a seemingly endless parade of fresh-faced country bros dispensing glib hits about babes and beer. Some even regarded him as an inheritor of country’s outlaw tradition, though in truth that designation was always an awkward fit for an expert craftsman who’d written No. 1 singles for Luke Bryan and Kenny Chesney.
But as Universal Music Group Nashville President Cindy Mabe points out, country music changed in Stapleton’s wake. “Right after ‘Traveller,’ every artist that came to town had a beard,” said Mabe, who oversees Stapleton’s label, Mercury Nashville. “We’d been living in the world of Ken and Barbie, and he brought a realness that maybe hadn’t been there before.”
Today, country’s biggest young male stars are Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen — happily scruffy everydudes whose music similarly balances yearning and brawn. Which means that Stapleton, nominated for male vocalist of the year for the sixth time at Wednesday night’s CMA Awards, is less a maverick now than a standard-bearer.
On “Starting Over,” due Friday, you can hear him taking advantage of that position to push ever so slightly at the edges of his well established identity. The album, whose title track he’s expected to perform at the CMAs, contains some of his hardest-rocking material, including several cuts he created with help from his avowed guitar hero, Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. It has a song, “Watch You Burn,” addressed to the perpetrator of the horrific mass shooting that killed 60 people at a Las Vegas country-music festival in 2017 — a rare instance of the normally circumspect Stapleton stepping into the sociopolitical fray of modern American life.
Most gratifyingly, “Starting Over” showcases the extremes of his remarkable vocal ability, as in “Cold,” a stately, whisper-to-a-growl R&B ballad filled with pained bent notes and lengthy runs as gritty as they are fluid.
“I love Chris the way I love Otis Redding and Donny Hathaway,” said Pink, who drafted Stapleton for a romantic duet on her 2019 album “Hurts 2B Human” — just one of several pop-star collaborations (along with songs by Justin Timberlake and Ed Sheeran) that Stapleton has been approached to do in recent years.
“His soul has been around a lot longer than he has,” Pink added, before mimicking one of the singer’s key riffs from his slow-rolling rendition of the country classic “Tennessee Whiskey.”
“Come the f— on, Chris!”
Asked how he developed the technique required to expand his natural gift, Stapleton, who grew up in small-town Kentucky, said he never took vocal lessons but sang along carefully as a teenager to songs by Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey and Bell Biv DeVoe. Stapleton was speaking over the phone from outside a recording studio in Nashville — he’d driven into town from his ranch outside Franklin, Tenn., where he can’t get a strong cell signal — and suddenly paused as a loud whistle sounded in the background.
“Sorry, there was a train going by,” he said after a few seconds. “How country is that?”
Stapleton completed “Starting Over” before the COVID-19 pandemic; in fact, he began work on the album two years ago with sessions near Muscle Shoals, Ala. (where Aretha Franklin, whom Stapleton called “the greatest singer that ever lived,” famously worked) and at Nashville’s Compass Sound studio, a favorite spot of the late Waylon Jennings also known as Hillbilly Central.
Eventually, the singer returned to his usual haunt, Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A, where he and his longtime producer, Dave Cobb, made Stapleton’s previous albums. Does he harbor any superstitions about re-creating the circumstances of success, as a ballplayer might by refusing to shave or combing his hair during a championship series?
“Well, if not shaving or combing your hair is superstitious, then I’ve been superstitious for years,” he replied. Then he acknowledged that he hauls around an old dining-room chair from his parents’ house that he likes to sit in every time he records. And he’s got a lucky Fender Jazzmaster guitar. And a pocketknife of his father’s that he always carries in his pocket.
“Besides all that, though — nah, no superstitions,” he said.
Stapleton introduced a new element into his process by traveling to Los Angeles to write with Campbell, whom he was thrilled to meet when Stapleton opened for Petty and the Heartbreakers at Chicago’s Wrigley Field in 2017. (The album also features the Heartbreakers’ keyboardist, Benmont Tench.) Among the tunes they finished together was “Arkansas,” about a real-life road trip through the Ozark Mountains that Stapleton and his bass player took after his wife presented him with an Irish-green Porsche 911 for his birthday.
“We were trying to make a movie of the idea,” said Campbell, a longtime fan of what he called “traveling songs” such as “I’ve Been Everywhere,” made popular in the early ’60s by Hank Snow.
“He names every city in the f— country in that song,” Campbell said with a laugh, and so Stapleton in “Arkansas” shouts out Fayetteville, Little Rock and West Memphis as he recounts “burn[ing] through one-light towns like a scalded dog” over his and Campbell’s roaring guitars.
With its heavy twang and snarling tempo, “Arkansas” can evoke the rootsier hair metal of the late ’80s — think Poison or Cinderella — a comparison that led Stapleton to reveal that the first concert he ever saw was by Bon Jovi on its tour behind 1988’s “New Jersey.”
“A lot of that stuff, it’s become a kind of caricature, or we’ve relegated it to that,” he said. “But there was a lot of great music back then” — even if he remembered stepping outside during Skid Row’s opening set because the band was too loud. (Interesting factoid: Stapleton, a reliably combustible live draw, said he’d agreed to open for Van Halen on a proposed 2019 tour that ended up not happening due to concerns over the health of Eddie Van Halen, who died of cancer last month.)
Stapleton’s date for that long-ago Bon Jovi show was his dad, and decades later he’s just as tight with his own brood of four sons and a daughter between the ages of 1 and 11. In “Starting Over’s” stirring closer, titled “Nashville, TN,” he reflects on his decision to move from the city to the country to secure some privacy for his family.
He and Morgane wrote the song in 2015 after his star-making performance with Timberlake on that year’s CMA Awards made a tourist attraction of their home.
“All of a sudden there’s a bus with people from four states away showing up in my driveway while I’m trying to play ball with my kids,” he said. “I’m not complaining, but I’d spent 37 years not living in that space. I had to get away from the anxiety of that bus rolling up twice a day.”
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As with virtually every other working musician, COVID forced Stapleton to call off a 2020 tour of arenas and amphitheaters, in his case directly after opening night in Texas on March 11 — the same evening the NBA suspended its season in a dramatic acknowledgment of the threat of the coronavirus.
Yet the singer, whose team has consulted with Major League Baseball regarding safety protocols for rescheduled dates set to resume in April, hasn’t regretted the time he’s been able to spend at home.
“It’s been good — self-reflective,” he said.
Stapleton ventures well outside that cocoon with “Watch You Burn,” almost certainly the rawest, angriest song he’s ever released.
“If I could snap my fingers / If I could flip a switch,” he seethes amid stomping drums and a grinding guitar riff, “I’d make that last bullet first / You son of a bitch.”
“It’s purely reactionary,” he said of the song, which he wasn’t sure he wanted to put on the album at first. “I generally avoid charged environments.”
UMG’s Mabe, for one, was surprised by his decision. “I never thought it would see the light of day,” she said of “Watch You Burn.” But Campbell, who co-wrote the song, could tell Stapleton was troubled by “the senseless violence going on in the world right now.”
“He wanted to make a statement,” Campbell added.
Stapleton faced criticism from some country fans on social media in September after he told an interviewer that Black lives “absolutely” matter and that this year’s nationwide protests made him feel as though “the country that I thought that we were living in was a myth.”
Asked about the backlash, he said, “I don’t have any regrets about saying anything that I said. But I’m a human being — it hurts if somebody wants me to go to hell.”
Did the experience make him think differently about his audience?
“Look, you’re talking about a very small percentage of people that listen to my music,” he said. “And some of those people aren’t even people — they’re robots.” He laughed. “I don’t mean that as a metaphor. They’re actual bots meant to modify our behavior.
“I think it’s important that we live in reality and not in that social-media space, where the most hateful voices get the loudest megaphone,” he continued. “But I feel sorry for people that think anything I said was offensive. I’m sorry they lack the capacity to approach things as human beings.”
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