The other night, Chris Stapleton called Dave Cobb because he missed him. “Hey, man, I’d love to just get together to play some guitar,” the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter told the man who produced his breakthrough 2015 album, Traveller. Stapleton dropped by Cobb’s Nashville studio and wound up playing on R&B singer Anderson East’s album.
“I’m always just looking to get back to the joy of playing music, and keeping it simple, as much as I can,” says Stapleton, whose tour brings him to the Perfect Vodka Amphitheater in West Palm Beach Aug. 6. “And not trying to lose myself … trying to chase any range of commercial success that we’ve had, or anything like that.”
Until Traveller, Stapleton was a highly successful Nashville songwriter for 12 years, securing credits on some 200 cuts for other singers — Luke Bryan’s Drink a Beer, George Strait’s Love’s Gonna Make It Alright, Alan Jackson’s Talk Is Cheap. In 2013, the year his father died, he put out his first solo single, What Are You Listening To, and it flopped. The subsequent malaise sent Stapleton and his wife, Morgane, also a singer and professional songwriter, onto an epic journey of distraction, driving a 1979 Jeep Cherokee from Phoenix to Nashville.
The road trip served its purpose. Inspired, Stapleton wrote several songs that would become the heart of Traveller, notably the title track, a muddy road-trip anthem that opens with the line “I see the sunshine creeping in.” The album, full of contemplative lyrics that beautifully fit Stapleton’s laid-back Bob Seger voice, pointed a new direction for mainstream country. Stapleton’s performance at last year’s Country Music Association awards (with help from pop star Justin Timberlake) finally turned him into a solo star.
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“As far as some people are concerned, they don’t know that I still write songs for people, or go play on people’s records. Those are things that I’ve always done and still continue to do,” Stapleton says from Nashville. “Someday, when people quit coming to watch me play, I'll keep doing that, hopefully. It’s fun to get out of your own skin sometimes.”
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, Stapleton grew up in a smaller town about 120 miles east called Staffordsville. His father was an electrical engineer who worked in a coal mine, his mother was a clinical dietitian who stayed at home to raise the kids.
In 2013, Stapleton signed a solo deal with a major record label, Mercury Nashville, just before his father died. Stapleton has been saluting singers on stage who’ve passed away — his live versions of Prince’s Purple Rain and Merle Haggard’s Today I Started Loving You Again went viral. Stapleton doesn’t want to talk about that: “I don’t like to use the deaths of other artists to somehow promote myself,” he says. “It feels wrong to me.” But he speaks lovingly of his father’s life, particularly his time in the coal mines.
“My dad was gone at 4:30 in the morning and home at 8 at night and he worked underground and the last mine he worked in was 26 inches high in a lot of places,” Stapleton says. “He liked the engineering of it — he liked the moving of earth and being able to extract something and put it back for reclamation. He enjoyed the whole process.”