Chris Stapleton’s backstory is something out of a country myth. His dad was a coal miner; the Nashville singer-songwriter, 37, who has written for everyone from Adele to Tim McGraw, was moved to record his solo debut, Traveller, after his death.
Given the inspiration, Traveller is an understandably solemn album, the work of a man gripped by life’s impermanence. Whether Stapleton is dreaming into the starlit night or staring down a grave, undercurrents of regret, loss and resignation lurk around the corner. There’s the glum “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,” which shrouds reflections about his father in the language of religious backsliding, while “Nobody to Blame” and “Devil Named Music” tally up life’s losses with an impact deeper than the usual brokenhearted, beer-nursing country-radio fare.
Despite the pain, Stapleton’s songs are both rhythmic and nuanced, perhaps a by-product of years spent writing for others. They feature a cast of characters that remain likable even as they rush headlong into pursuit of ruin, fortune or chance. For the album’s centerpiece, “Tennessee Whiskey,” Stapleton dismantles an old barroom classic, remolding it with a morose nostalgia. It’s a love song, but it hinges on the devastating tones of Stapleton’s rawhide-tough baritone. His weary, sardonic voice powers another cover, of The Charlie Daniels Band‘s bleary-eyed “Was It 26,” toward the same complexity.
Formerly, Stapleton fronted bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, but Traveller bears only hints of that sound, lingering long in steel guitar and careening percussion. The album, replete with defiant Southern rockers and honey-sweet ballads, is a fitting self-portrait from a man who shirked the spotlight for far too long. For all the grief and regret it contains, it’s a triumphant debut, encapsulating the grit of life, turning it into a hell of a journey.
This story originally appeared in the May 16 issue of Billboard.