I can’t recall this much commentary and expectancy surrounding an album release, much less from a technically ‘debut’ solo artist! There must be a million words printed across entertainment related publications and blogs recently re Traveller, and it would be superfluous of me to attempt to do more than whet your curiosity, because all you need to know about Chris Stapleton is in the listening. If you don’t like what your ears report, then turn the page, because a committed constituency have voted him the saviour of ‘real’ country music, and the Stapleton disciples are loud and proud!

The album, Traveller, is in every way a departure from a typical major-label Nashville production. Working with his own small band, J.T. Cure on bass, Derek Mixon on drums, and wife Morgane Stapleton on backup vocals, augmented by Waylon Jennings’ steel player (Robby Turner) and Willie Nelson’s harmonica man (Mickey Raphael), Stapleton goes for a lean, raw sound that underscores the blunt skeletal honesty of his songs.

On the surface, with his Jamey Johnson beard, Johnny Paycheck hatband and snakeskin guitar strap (a buddy killed a rattler and made it for him special he kidded to Billboard), he cuts an imposing figure, while his window-shaking voice, with all its angst, volume and growls, could scare off intruders. Yet it takes no time in conversation with him to know that the gruff, lumberjack-look image belies a softly spoken, even reticent sensitivity, and an astute and sure-footed intellect.

That polarity extends all the way into the 37 year old Kentucky native’s career. While Traveller is full of the kind of traditional, organic country for which purists yearn, he’s also written some of pop country’s most radio-friendly hits: Thomas Rhett’s ‘Crash and Burn,’ Darius Rucker’s ‘Come Back Song,’ Kenny Chesney’s ‘Never Wanted Nothing More’ and Luke Bryan’s ‘Drink a Beer,’ among approximately 170 song cuts you may know by heart, sung by stars from George Strait to Adele. Patty Loveless’ cover of ‘Higher Than the Wall,’ a bold waltz written with Mike Henderson, was Stapleton’s first bull’s-eye as a composer. He called it “validation.”

Contrary to narratives that suggest someone like him cannot avoid being ground to bits by the thousand cuts of the pop-crossover imperative, he has thrived as a writer without touching a drum machine or a rap lyric., and has been penning songs in Nashville for more than a decade. His style, a gravelly stew of southern rock, bleeding-heart soul and hurt, hung-over country, has barely changed during this period.

Confirming the durable legacy in his writing, Chris said, “… this album has songs that go right back to my first year in Nashville. They may not have relevance in my current life but they sure did then, because I used to write out of joy – and I think this record is a return to that. The joy of creation, the joy of music and the joy of being alive and doing things that you think you should be doing, just to be doin’ ‘em.”

He wrote or co-wrote all but two of the album’s 14 tracks, like the excellent title song-

I’m just a traveller on this earth / Sure as my heart’s behind the pocket of my shirt / I just keep rolling ‘til I’m in the dirt/ ‘Cause I’m a traveller, oh, I’m a traveller”

There’s Texas dance hall sweetness on ‘More of You,’ a duet with the pitch-perfect harmonizer (and his wife) Morgane , The singer-guitarist cranks it up for the rocking urgency of ‘Parachute,’ and the twangy chip-kicking of ‘Nobody to Blame’ but most of the time Stapleton is not afraid to let the songs unfold at their own unhurried pace. There’s a nod to Johnny Cash on ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,’ echoes of Hank Jnr on ‘Might As Well Get Stoned’ and the rough and tough ‘Outlaw State of Mind.’ The two outside songs are bona fide classics: the oft-recorded ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ and Charlie Daniels’ ‘Was It 26,’ written by Don Sampson.

Produced by hot-streak man Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Jamey Johnson), Traveller might well have more in common with the soulful Tulsa sound of the 1970s than the shimmer of 21st century Nashville, and Chris shrugs off any attempt to refute the comparison, saying “If somebody tells me it sounds dated, I say that’s great, as long as the date is 1978.”

Throughout Traveller, Stapleton presents himself as a true Southern character, a family man who can’t help but cling to his vices and a seeker whose sometimes old-fashioned dreams of home don’t prevent him from wanting to free-range in the world. Has Stapleton lived all of these stories of hard luck and wild times? For the sake of his liver and his kids’ college funds, you hope not. But in the imaginary space where country clichés become the gospel truth, he’s utterly convincing.

“When I first got to town, the second guy I ever wrote with was Jerry Salley, who I wrote ‘Outlaw State of Mind’ with. He said, ‘Man, country music is not for kids.’ And I don’t think it is,” says Stapleton. “I wanted to make a pretty grown-up record, meant for grown-ups to sit around and listen to.”

“I’m playing electric guitar, mandolin, acoustic guitar. I’m singing on it, singing harmony with myself in some places on it. It could not be more me,” he says of making an album with only his touring band and producer Dave Cobb. “It’s really easy to go out there – and I’m not knocking anyone – and hire guys to do all these things for you. But for me, this is a true representation of what you can come and see live, and hopefully connect with.”

… continued in Country Update Issue 77 – out now.