By Courtney E. Smith
Chris Stapleton already has five No. 1 singles. If you haven’t heard him singing them, that’s because they were hits for some of country’s biggest artists, including Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker, George Strait and Josh Turner. His work has also appeared on albums by Adele, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Thomas Rhett and Dierks Bentley.
Now Stapleton may be posed to break out on his own.
Stapleton already saw some success with the SteelDrivers (he was lead singer and guitarist with that GRAMMY-nominated group from 2008 to 2010), but his debut solo album Traveller (due out May 5) puts him out in the spotlight under his own name. And thanks to a recent wave of similar ‘outsider’ country (Sturgill Simpson‘s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and the work of artists like Jason Isbell), the release just might be perfectly timed to push him into a more prominent position. Namely, reaching an audience hungry for something mainstream country can’t give them.
With an album steeped in outlaw influences, recorded in historic RCA Studio A, helmed by producer Dave Cobb (who also worked with Simpson and Isbell) and written by the guy who penned several of the catchiest, most sincere hits for country’s biggest stars, it seems like a proposition that can’t lose.
Radio.com caught up with Stapleton during a phone conversation to find out about the desert inspirations that helped kickstart his songwriting for the new album, what recording in the legendary RCA Studio A did to his music and where to stop when you’re passing through New Mexico.
Radio.com: Have you been working on Traveller for long? When did you start on it?
Chris Stapleton: You know, I can’t remember [laughs]. The last year has been a little bit of a blur. I lost my dad in October of 2013, and my wife was kind enough to buy me an old Jeep, because she knows I like old cars. It was out in Phoenix, so we flew out there and built it in the desert and kept building it all the way home. On that trip, I thought a lot about life and how we’re all just passing through it. That led to the song “Traveller,” but it also put me on a path. I guess it’s a record that my dad would have liked to have heard. He listened to a lot of outlaw country like Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson], but also soul music. My earliest memories are of listening to music in the car with him. The idea for the album was formed, there and from there things started falling into place.
I heard about half a song off of Sturgill Simpson’s new record that he did with [producer] Dave Cobb. I didn’t know Dave, though we realized we had met I guess two or three years earlier once we talked about it. I really liked the sound of that record, so we got together, we hung out and got to know each other a little bit. And we found that we have a lot of similar opinions on music and taste, our likes and dislikes, guitars–we geeked out on gear and amps and things like that. We formed a good friendship, fairly quickly. So we went to the label [Mercury Records Nashville] with the idea that I’d like to record a record in that style with Dave. They initially asked me to go in and do six sides with him. We’d booked time, seven or eight days, and within two days we had six sides done [laughs]. So I called up the label and asked, “Can we just keep going?” They said go ahead and when they heard what we’d been doing, they were all in.
It’s interesting that you say you wanted to do something in the outlaw aesthetic that your dad listened to, but you recorded in RCA Studio A, which couldn’t be more Nashville. How did that come to be?
Well you know Waylon Jennings recorded in there, so it’s not necessarily a departure. Robby Turner played steel [guitar] on the record with me, he played with Waylon for 15 years. Mickey Raphael played harp on it, he’s played with Willie Nelson and still does to this day. If you go in RCA A, you’ll realize that it’s not just a Nashville thing. It’s a studio that belongs to music. Songs like “I Will Always Love You” were recorded in there. It’s one of those studios that’s a piece of music history, not just Nashville history. Elvis recorded in there. The list goes on and on and on if you research the place. It’s in Nashville, but it’s not just something that belongs to Nashville.
At the time when I decided to record in there, it was a happy accident. We wanted to go record in Sound Recording A, which Dave and I both like a lot, but they weren’t available in the time slots that we had. So I asked what else they he liked and Dave mentioned RCA. At the time they were making plans to tear it down, so I said we should probably go do it just to say that we recorded in there. We thought at the time that we might be one of the last records that ever got made in there. Luckily Aubrey [Preston] stepped up and bought the place and is taking great pains to preserve it, turning it into the historical monument that it should be.