“Everything changes,” country singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton sang early in his set Monday at the El Rey, “like the desert wind.”
Or, perhaps, like a gifted musician’s career.
The song he was singing was the title track from his debut solo album, “Traveller,” which came out in May to considerable critical acclaim but modest sales.
It had sold a bit under 100,000 copies in the six months it had been out. But everything indeed has changed since his knockout performance -- along with pop superstar duet partner Justin Timberlake -- earlier this month at the CMA Awards in Nashville, where he also took three major awards, including album of the year.
The transformative effect on the 37-year-old Kentucky native’s career could hardly be more dramatic: Less than two weeks after the CMA appearance, at which he also collected new artist and male vocalist trophies, his album has sold nearly 250,000 additional copies and all remaining dates on his concert tour sold out in a matter of hours.
That led to a standing-room-only reception for the L.A. show, the final stop on this tour leg before Stapleton takes a break for the holidays.
An ecstatic crowd sang along with many of the songs in his 80-minute set, the majority drawn from “Traveller.”
It’s a sharply written and powerfully delivered collection from a man who, despite the “new artist” honor he just picked up, has been hard at work in Nashville for more than a decade. He has written or co-written hits for other country artists — Luke Bryan’s “Drink a Beer”, Kenny Chesney’s “Never Wanted Nothing More” and Darius Rucker’s “Come Back Song,” to name three.
He also drew attention a decade ago as the lead singer and songwriter in the avant-bluegrass band the SteelDrivers before deciding to take a shot at a solo career.
Because his songs are so deeply felt, there was a sense Monday of quality finally getting its due, rather than a star being born because of one lucky moment in the TV spotlight.
Some have gone as far as to say that Stapleton’s sudden rise may signal the end of the party-minded “bro-country” movement, although that’s a considerable weight to put even on Stapleton’s broad shoulders.
But his show was refreshingly free of the trite conventions of mainstream country music: Not once did he disingenuously point out that his album has just logged a second week at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. And he made no reference to the CMA trophies he now has for his mantel, though most other country acts would not-so-subtly mention them in a show of faux-humility.
Instead, he and his tight trio — bassist J.T. Cure, drummer Derek Mixon and Morgane Stapleton, his wife, singing harmonies — stuck to making music that mattered, to them, and to the audience.
That music mines real feelings, real struggles, real joys and real heartbreaks felt by real people, and Stapleton sang them with a rusty saw of a voice whose ragged edges invest his trenchant lyrics with all the more potency.
He draws from two strains of pop singing: the note-bending style of country that traces to Merle Haggard and Lefty Frizzell before him; and the gut-wrenching expressionism of blues and R&B perfected by Ray Charles. Stapleton also is a skilled yet economical lead guitarist whose solos elicited memories of Texas blues rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan.
But the vocal and instrumental powers wouldn’t mean much if they were attached to formulaic lyrics, and Stapleton’s songs are rewardingly cliché-free.
In “Parachute,” he sorts through the detritus of heartbreak as he sings of “memories [that] keep on turning to the rhythm of a broken heart.”
That’s before he gets to the payoff chorus that suggests:
You only need a roof when it’s raining
You only need a fire when it’s cold
You only need a drink when the whiskey
Is the only thing you have left to hold
There’s a lot of whiskey — and beer and wine and other mood- and mind-altering beverages — in Stapleton’s songs, yet it’s a world removed from the bereft pickup-truck-and-tailgate-party mentality that has taken over mainstream country in recent years.
The song with which he bowled over the CMA Awards show audience, “Tennessee Whiskey,” celebrates the recovery and redemption one man has found through love:
I used to spend my nights out in a barroom
Liquor was the only love I’ve known
But you rescued me from reachin’ for the bottle
And brought me back from being too far gone
In “Was It 26,” he looks back at the haze of misspent youth and wonders what he missed and “what price I had to pay.”
It’s encouraging to see substance triumph over style and magazine-cover good looks, and that may be the most important change to come out of the music industry’s latest awards ceremony.