First Impressions: Chris Stapleton, “Traveler”

travelerOn his first record Chris Stapleton comes crashing out of the gate like a long-time songwriter who’s been honing his craft and waiting for his time in the spotlight, which of course he is: He’s charted in country radio with songs penned for Kenny Chesney and Darius Rucker but apparently had a lot leftover, Traveler clocking in at an hour and three minutes, a dozen original songs and a couple of covers. The unfortunately long running time is one of just a couple concessions Stapleton makes to country music as it’s practiced in Nashville circa 2015, the other being a line in “Nobody to Blame” about a woman who “turned [his] life into a country song,” a tip of the hat to contemporary country’s weird and off-putting self-referential streak. The rest of the record proves that you don’t have to say “country music” for it to be country music, and that it’s more than possible to make records the way they used to make ‘em without sounding stodgy or old-fashioned. Traveler picks up an outlaw swagger and dives into bluesy southern rock, it offers barroom weepers and simmering soul, and it does it all with an easygoing grace that makes Stapleton seem more like a natural than Sturgill Simpson or Jamey Johnson, his closest male contemporaries; better comparisons might be to Brandy Clark or to Miranda when she’s playing the hard country, as on much of the back half of Platinum; Stapleton’s gift is that he’s traditional without being self-conscious about it, writing songs that point backward in time but pack a punch that makes them sound modern. The presence of two cover songs here makes it plain that this is more than just a songwriter’s showcase: He’s a tremendous performer with grit in his voice but great propensity for tenderness; listen to how he pulls back to a whisper when he delivers key lines on “Whiskey and You.” That song is one of several in a row that all mention whiskey, by the way, including a wonderfully supple, burnished cover of “Tennessee Whiskey.” There are also multiple songs about the devil and no-good women aplenty, which might suggest that the record is lovelorn and haunted the way a lot of great country music is, certainly like a lot of Waylon and Merle’s records were back in the day, and that’s true to an extent: There are livelier tempos and rousing choruses but nothing appropriate for spring break, which immediately sets Stapleton apart from his contemporary country peers—he’s a man, not a bro; he’s too goddamn blue to sing about flip-flops and he doesn’t like his drinks out of a can—but let’s not overstate the melancholy here: The songs are often sad and the mood is generally serious but the music is understated, graceful, and effortless: He makes all of this sound easy, and that keeps the album alluring through nearly its entire hour.

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