LISTEN: “EITHER WAY”
When country singer Chris Stapleton returned to Nashville’s famed Studio A last winter to record his follow-up to 2015’s critically acclaimed “Traveller,” he brought with him the same producer and the same players. The circumstances couldn’t have been more different.
Two years earlier, the burly, bearded son of an Appalachian coal miner recorded his debut album under the radar, with measured expectations. This time around, after Stapleton’s meteoric rise, he faced the pressures that came with a hurricane of success, including keen interest from country music’s power players — and even the genre’s royalty.
“We got the luxury of making the last record in this vacuum where no one could interfere,” he said. “This time, one day I walked in and Dolly Parton sent me a song. Things like that are heavy. That’s the highest compliment you can get.”
Stapleton blocked out the added scrutiny and worked to distill his new music down to its core, just as he did on “Traveller.” Together with the other musicians and producer Dave Cobb, he set out “to make the best music that we can,” he said. “As far as I can tell, we did pretty good at it.”
“From A Room: Volume 1” will be in stores Friday. Named for Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A, where it was recorded last winter, the album is the first release of a two-volume set. Volume 1 contains eight songs co-written by Stapleton and a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning.” Volume two will be out later this year.
For material, Stapleton leaned on songs from his back catalog. He penned half of the originals with former SteelDrivers bandmate Mike Henderson.
Either Way,” the album’s lead single, Stapleton wrote with Tim James and Kendall Marvel. Previously recorded by Lee Ann Womack, the song’s lyrics include: “Baby you can go or you can stay/ I won’t love you either way.” Stapleton’s version is only a guitar and a vocal.
I really think people are going to pull over on the side of the road and go, ‘I’m gonna bawl my eyes out,’ or ‘What the heck was that?’ ” said James, who was inspired to write the song after a conversation with a relative. “It’s an honest song.”
When Stapleton recorded “Traveller,” he asked his record label if he could simply make an album, release it and go play it live without worrying about its commercial viability. Stapleton would have considered 50,000 copies sold a “huge victory.” He sold 2 million.
He approached “From A Room: Volume 1” the same way: his eye on the music and not the radio dial. Doing that, he said, takes the pressure off.
“In life it’s really hard to find ‘real’ in anything,” said Universal Music Group President Cindy Mabe. “People connect with Stapleton because they sense he’s authentic. Our world is consumed by slick, over-marketed, over-thought ideas and noise that says absolutely nothing. Chris Stapleton represents the complete opposite. He just wants to make music that matters. That’s what makes him beyond rare and always in demand. It’s also why his music is timeless.”
Stapleton’s breakout moment came during a performance with Justin Timberlake during the 2015 Country Music Association Awards. Until then, he was a critical darling who had made a few television appearances but had yet to cross over into mainstream recognition.
But Stapleton’s textured drawl and mountain man persona paired with Timberlake’s pop sensibilities on a mashup of “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Drink You Away” was a television moment that catapulted the eastern Kentucky native to the center of attention. In the next week, “Traveller” immediately sold more than 50,000 albums — more than half as many as he’d sold in the previous six months.
“It would be foolish not to mark that moment as a definite switch flipper for us,” Stapleton said. “All of a sudden, we’re doing things we’d never done before and growing at rates that we weren’t used to. I looked at music careers like you never really know what’s gonna (work), but then the stars lined up, everything clicked and you get to ride some kind of strange reality, some alternate universe.”
Country music historian Robert Oermann said the public’s embracing of Stapleton restored his faith in people and that his “is a triumph of good, old-fashioned talent.”
The success quickly manifested itself in expected ways. Stapleton started playing larger venues, upgraded his stage and hired people to assemble it. He brought a guitar tech on the road for the first time, which he said is “life-changing.” His family could join him on the road more comfortably and he could afford to be more selective about the shows he plays.
“I grew up less than a mile from folks that lived in shacks with dirt floors,” he said. “I certainly know that there are needs in this country. Not too far from your house, if you look around, people need to be helped. … Now (I) have some slight capacity to do something.”
For Stapleton, helping might mean singing in a benefit show, donating auction items or sending money. Helping those in need is so close to his heart that he’s earmarked 75 cents to $1 of every concert ticket sold for a charity fund “so we can help things that need help at all times.”
“There is probably no better feeling in what we do than that,” Stapleton said. “A lot of what we think about is pretty self-absorbed things on the stage and having a bunch of people scream at you because they love what you’re doing. That can be a pretty narcissistic thing to do if you’re not careful. You want to avoid some of that … and feel like the good that comes out of that is a good for society as a whole. You hope that there’s some other greater purpose at the end of it.”
Reach Cindy Watts at 615-664-2227 or firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @CindyNWatts.
*BELOW: Watch TIM JAMES performing another one of his hits, “Love Like Crazy!”