?If Grammy voters hand Chris Stapleton this year’s top prize, it won’t necessarily be because they like underdog stories or prefer classic country to all that “bro” stuff on the radio. Stapleton’s career defies easy narratives, and so does Traveller, the 37-year-old Kentucky native’s debut album. Although the record seems to have come out of nowhere, like a gift from the same twang-loving music gods that gave the world Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves, it’s the work of a Nashville veteran who’s made his living writing songs and playing music for more than 15 years. Stapleton has penned tunes for artists ranging from Trace Adkins to Adele, and he’s got five No. 1 hits to his credit. He’s neither an outsider nor a bro-hater, and Traveller isn’t some middle finger to Music City.
Co-produced by Dave Cobb — the man behind Simpson’s Grammy-nominated Metamodern Sounds In Country Music — Traveller is bluesy, soulful, and rocking in a down-home, new-old sort of way. Whereas other bearded songwriters stepped in country tradition wear their old- school bonafides like sheriff’s badges, Stapleton and Cobb created an album that relies on the songs, not the vintage production, to draw listeners in. Traveller does so from the start, as the opening title track finds Stapleton rolling down life’s highway, admitting he’s got no clue where he’s headed. Inspired by a road trip Stapleton took after his father’s death, “Traveller” is bright and reassuring — a little something to spin when the journey gets rough.
Not everything on Traveller is so cheery. “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” is about a father losing his faith, while “Whiskey and You” centers on a man drinking away the pain of a failed marriage. The highlight is “Might As Well Get Stoned,” a Stones-y barroom jam that begins like a heartbroken toker’s lament, but takes a turn in the second verse. “Now every time I watch the TV / Another soldier dies / Another brother’s gone,” Stapleton sings, raising the stakes with masterful subtlety.
Traveller wasn’t just an artistic triumph and critical favorite. When the record dropped last May, it debuted at No. 2 on the Top Country Albums Chart and No. 14 on the Billboard 200. Six months later, after Stapleton performed with fan Justin Timberlake at the CMAs, the album re-entered the Billboard 200 at No. 1 — something no LP had done before. The massive sales have earned Stapleton feature-length coverage in both country publications and hipper outlets like The FADER, giving him plenty of chances to charm interviewers and tell his story. It ain’t simple, but man, it’s a good one.