Traveller by Chris Stapleton
The year is 2015, and country music has lost its way, stranded on a one-way, one-lane road in unchartered territory. Stuck somewhere between pop and a hard place, the genre that I grew up with is experiencing an identity crisis, largely thanks to numerous figureheads handing the torch to some unsavory characters. The corporate Nashville machine, which of late has been solely concerned with cranking out one-trick ponies, is facing its lowest popularity since 2008, particularly among the 18-to-34 demographic that drove the “bro country” trend to its peak. That same demographic that launched vapid white bread acts to stardom is now abandoning the genre, leaving country music on a precipice.
I don’t have an answer for country music’s plight, but in light of long-time songwriter Chris Stapleton’s first major-label release, I do have hope. I didn’t know what to expect from “Traveller,” given Stapleton’s track record of writing mainstream fodder for acts such as Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett. I was reluctant to give him my forgiveness for such transgressions, but forgive him I did, because every single song on “Traveller” shines.
Stapleton’s cover of George Jones and David Allan Coe’s song “Tennessee Whiskey” had the potential to be an ear-sore, but it’s a masterpiece when Stapleton lets loose on the chorus in a deep, effectual way.
“Outlaw State of Mind” threatened to be an overplayed trope of the rebellion cliche that the likes of Eric Church and Brantley Gilbert have beat half to death, but delightful instrumentals redeem what could have been a low point of this album. Stapleton’s vocals, too, are a thing of beauty; their deep passion allays any doubt of his sincerity. This man is country music from his beard to his boots. Take a look at that beard if you haven’t.
“Traveller” does have a smattering of Southern rock and a fleeting hint of soul, but this is the traditional country album that fans have been begging for. Every track conveys Stapleton’s talent, especially the live recording of “Sometimes I Cry,” which ends with the cheering of fans in Nashville’s famous Studio A.
There are other acts out there doing great things – Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson come to mind – but Stapleton and his glorious “Traveller” should and will give everyone pause. He has the chops to help raise country music back to its former glory, what with his extensive experience in the music industry and time spent in bands such as Steeldrivers. At 37, Stapleton has traveled, performed, and written. He has seen it all, and that’s reflected in his lyrics.
I hope that every “flavor of the week” artist in country music sets their bottle of Fireball and their cutoff shirts down for long enough to see that when the temporary fans have flocked to the next rising trend, true country fans and their artists will remain right here where we’ve been all along.