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Country Hit Writer Chris Stapleton Breaks Out On His Own In 'Traveller'


This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of the debut solo album by Chris Stapleton. He's known for having written hit country song for artists such as George Strait, Darius Rucker, Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. Stapleton was born in Kentucky and began his professional life as a member of The SteelDrivers, a bluegrass band. Ken says Stapleton's new album, "Traveller," demonstrates a wide range of musical styles with a distinctive sound.


CHRIS STAPLETON: (Singing) I see the sunrise creeping in. Everything changes like the desert wind. Here she comes, and then she's gone again. And I'm just a traveler on this earth, sure as my heart's behind the pocket of my shirt. I just keep rolling till I'm in the dirt 'cause I'm a traveler, oh, I'm a traveler.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I first heard Chris Stapleton singing with The SteelDrivers delivering bluegrass with soulfulness that occasionally shaded over into singer-songwriter territory. Go listen to him sing "You Put The Hurt On Me" with The SteelDrivers and you'll know what I mean, or better yet, listen to "Tennessee Whiskey" written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove on his new solo album. Stapleton exercises his gift for soul music phrasing to blend R&B with country.


STAPLETON: (Singing) Used to spend my nights at the ballroom. Liquor was the only love I'd known, but you rescued me from reaching for the bottom and brought me back from being too far gone. You're as smooth as Tennessee whiskey. You're as sweet as strawberry wine. You're as warm as a glass of brandy.

TUCKER: Stapleton and his relationship with the bottle is one of the more well-examined themes on this album, "Traveller." He frames it in different moods and genres. Compare the soulfulness of "Tennessee Whiskey" with the slow-burning hard rock of "Might As Well Get Stoned."


STAPLETON: (Singing) Well, she said she didn't love me and kicked me out the door. Now I'm living in a one-room and sleeping on the floor. I think I'm going to kick my boots off and put some music on, and since I'm all alone, I might as well get stoned. I might as well get stoned, and get it off my mind. Ain't got a thing to do. All I got is time. The bottle's all I have to be a friend of mine, and since my whiskey's gone, I might as well get stoned.

TUCKER: Stapleton is one of the few songwriters who's writing hits for big, highly commercial acts yet who also composes music that no mainstream country artist would ever hope to get on the radio these days. I'm thinking, for example, of the beautifully quiet mandolin-inflected song "More Of You."


STAPLETON: (Singing) When I think of you and the first time we met, and I heard the sound of your sweet, gentle voice, my heart took me over and gave me no choice. And right then I knew, it makes me want more of you, again and again.

TUCKER: The production on this album, "Traveller," by Stapleton and Dave Cobb makes it sound as though Stapleton is singing in an empty bar room. The atmosphere is at once intimate and lonesome with plenty of room to both stretch out long melody lines or lower the volume to deliver a confidential intimacy. Listen to the way Stapleton scales back the song "Whiskey And You" from the power-ballad treatment Tim McGraw gave it. Stapleton and producer Cobb make the song sound like a tune Stapleton is strumming at the foot of his empty bed.


STAPLETON: (Singing) There's a bottle on the dresser by your ring, and it's empty. So right now I don't feel a thing. I'll be hurting when I wake up on the floor, but I'll be over it by noon. That's the difference between whiskey and you.

TUCKER: What makes Chris Stapleton an interesting figure in Nashville music is that he can plug into the current atmosphere of party-hard music and also stand apart from it. In his mid-30s and just now releasing his debut as a solo artist, he's got enough life experience under his belt to look back and acknowledge that the party always ends, and what you're left with is whatever you make of your own character.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Chris Stapleton's debut album, "Traveller." If you want to catch up on recent interviews you missed with people like the creator of "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner, photographer Sally Mann and journalist Tom Brokaw, check out our podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.