Guest Album Review: Mike Meerdo on Chris Stapleton – Traveller – An Intoxicating Debut

Guest Album Review
Chris Stapleton: Traveller
“An Intoxicating Debut”

By: Mike Meerdo

Chris Stapleton is not new to Country music. He has six number one songs, seven ASCAP Awards dating back to 2006, and his highest charted single to date, ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ is a cover of a George Jones hit Country record from back in 1981. Chris is a ‘salt of the earth’ type soul who often balances his huge vocal range with his simple guitar sounds. He often paces his music in such as a way that he commands the listener to leap into his world and experience the heartache, whiskey, and tears throughout every beautifully crafted phrase. He is a true definition of a singer/songwriter that we often hear about in documentaries or in interviews but never see take center stage or live in the spotlight.

Yet on November 4, 2015 Chris shocked the Country music community when he won three CMA Awards for ‘New Artist of the Year’, ‘Male Vocalist of the Year’, and ‘Album of the Year’ – outpacing perennial favorites such as Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Blake Shelton, and Jason Aldean. People asked – Who is this guy? Why don’t I know any of his songs? Why does he look like a cross between Merle Haggard and Charlie Daniels? And most importantly – What does he sound like?

Chris’ debut album Traveller was released on May 5, 2015 and featured 14 tracks, of which all but two were written by Chris himself. He often performs on record and during live shows with his wife, Morgane Stapleton as his backup singer. And in those moments, you can immediately feel the connection the two of them share both in music and in life throughout the entire album. So let’s take a look at the man who everyone is talking about and see why he is considered, by many, to be the game-changer that Country music has so been desperately looking for.

Songs in Order
Traveller (Chris Stapleton)

“I’m Just a Traveller on this earth
Sure as my heart’s behind the pocket of my shirt
I’ll just keep rollin’ till I’m in the dirt
‘Cause I’m a traveller”

Immediately we can hear that Chris is not part of the Pop-Country genre. ‘Traveller’ is a smooth, cool drink of water to cleanse the listener’s pallet with light flavors of two part harmonies and steel guitar. Chris gives us this moment to check our bags at the door and to forget about what we have come from and what we’ve recently from Country music radio. ‘Traveller’ sends the listener off on his musical journey and for that, is a perfect first track of the album. 8/10

Fire Away (Stapleton, Danny Green)
‘Fire Away’ really relies on the chorus to deliver. Lucky for us, it’s a great big “sexy” hook which sonically just sounds great. We get our first chance to hear Chris’ raspy-yet-soulful voice open up in ways that Country hasn’t had since the days of Travis Tritt. 6.5/10

Tennessee Whiskey (Dean Dillon, Linda Hargrove)
George Jones made this song famous in 1981 – but Chris Stapleton brings it into the 21st Century. Chris performs a bluesy rendition which sounds like it was recorded live from a smoky stage somewhere in the middle of Memphis between the hours of midnight and closing time. Lyrically, one of my favorite country songs of all time. Vocally, he delivers a performance which pays tribute to the late, great Mr. Jones but also accentuates his signature runs that separate Stapleton from the rest of the pack. Sit back, pour a stiff drink, and enjoy! 8.5/10

Parachute (Stapleton, Jim Beavers)
‘Parachute’ picks up the pace and calls upon the Heartland Rock soul of Bob Seger or Steve Earle from the late 1970’s. Might be the best chorus in 2015, period. This track calls upon the hypnotic trances of a wayward six-string and the driving pulse of a Pearl kick drum throughout as Chris weaves his vocal threads in and out of each verse creating a blanket of pure inspiration. I love this song and I hope you do too. 9/10

Whiskey and You (Stapleton, Lee Thomas Miller)
This album has four must-listen tracks. ‘Whiskey and You’ is near the top of that short list. This is a songwriters’ song. The only song on the album with just Chris and his guitar. It’s stripped down to the bare bones of music. And really that’s all we need to hear. At this point, we know Chris has the chops to sing the phone book, if required. But here we get a sense of his pure writing genius. The only thing keeping this song from becoming a commercial success is its pacing is really slow – by design. But the listener shouldn’t care because this one is just for us – our little secret gem. 9.5/10

Nobody to Blame (Stapleton, Barry Bales, Ronnie Bowman)
If you listened to country music in the early-mid 1990’s you will recognize this sound. This is what Sirius XM would call ‘Prime’ Country. Chris steps into an outlaws’ clothes and plays the unapologetic bad-boy who delivers another Travis Tritt worthy vocal performance while the band is deceptively crafty with elements of steel guitar, harmonica, and tambourine while setting a gritty southwestern tone. 7/10

More of You (Stapleton, Bowman)
I don’t know if this song was ever created with intention of having strangers listen or just between Chris and his wife, Morgane. But all I know is that they perform and sing as if no one else is around or listening. This song seems to personify such a strong element of love in such a delicate and precious package that we are afraid to exhale. Yes – the harmonies are great. Yes, the instruments and pace of the song are lovely, but we love this song because of how it exposes the soul. It’s not my personal favorite but I think many people enjoy it and I can see why. 7/10

When the Stars Come Out (Stapleton, Dan Wilson)
Here is a song that has no distinguishable element which stands out from the pack but yet we are drawn in. There is an aura about this song which seems to send us on a magical cosmic journey. We don’t really know where we are going or why we are going there, but it feels good and sometimes that’s all music is about. 7/10

Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore (Stapleton)
My personal favorite on this album. This song follows in the footsteps of George Jones’ 1980 hit single “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. Chris gives us a chance to see how a man deals with loss and what really matters in life. Upon hearing for the first time, this is one of those songs where the listener will immediately want to hear a second time. It’s pure Country. It’s simple, humble, and honest. The song makes you want to cry and smile at the same time. Maybe that’s the formula for an instant classic. It appears to have worked in this case. Bravo, Mr. Stapleton. 10/10

Might as Well Get Stoned (Stapleton, Jimmy Stewart)
M.A.W.G.S. is another 1970’s inspired bar-rock anthem that would make George Thorogood proud to be a whiskey drinking, joint rolling, red-blooded American. Again, we don’t have a clear direction for where this song is going but its execution is so well crafted. There is heavy dose of distorted lead guitars and heavy bass line undertones which make us feel good and hungry for more. 6.5/10

Was it 26 (Don Sampson)
Apart from ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ – ‘Was it 26’ is the only other song not written by Stapleton on the album. Chris digs a bit deeper into his past and describes a time in his youth when he maybe spent too many nights on the wrong end of the bottle. Stapleton is again able to really capture our attention with his unique phrasing and explosive vocal powers. He is able to salvage an otherwise forgettable track that holds promise but never quite delivers. Maybe Stapleton should just stick to his own songs from now on. 6.5/10

The Devil Named Music (Stapleton)
‘The Devil Named Music’ is another blues-inspired jam which relies heavily on pacing and Stapleton’s ability to make the ordinary – extraordinary. This is another example of the sonic joys to which Traveller delivers where other albums often fail. Stapleton gives us a nice smooth glass of Kentucky brown, two fingers high, neat, and makes us enjoy each sip along the way. No need to rush through things. Sit back, take a deep breath, and let it wash over you. 7.5/10

Outlaw State of Mind (Stapleton, Bowman, Jerry Salley)
“I got friends that know how to have a good time
Yeah they roll their own and drink Carolina shine
I’ve seen the devil in a dark coal mine
I’ve been higher than a Georgia pine”

Chris earns street cred in the rough and rowdy anthem for bikers, beer joints, and the backwoods. Songs like these are risky for most artists. A level of authenticity is needed to pull it off. People can spot a fake from the first note. Chris doesn’t try to be rock and roll in ‘Outlaw State of Mind’. Much like Hank Williams Jr in 1981’s “Country Boys Can Survive”, Stapleton rallies the ‘shiners and the roughnecks to achieve a rare sense of authenticity with his message. 8/10

Sometimes I Cry (Stapleton, Clint Ingersoll)
“Sometimes I Cry” brings it all together. Chris opens up in this story about heartbreak and delivers an emotional yet gigantic vocal performance that is second to none. Bars everywhere have fantasies about performances like these in their tight, poorly lit stages over a crowd of intoxicated guests.

And that’s what this album is – intoxicating. Not from cheap homemade whiskey, but from 140-proof rounds of brilliant song writing and shots of vocal genius along the way. Stapleton makes sure there is no doubt left in the listener’s mind. You know a Chris Stapleton song when you hear it. Influences of Blues, Southern Rock, and Traditional Country are often over exaggerated when describing artists, but Stapleton is the real deal and delivers on every track. Don’t take my word for it – just look at his trophy case.

Other albums which are similar to Stapleton’s that I personally endorse are:
Aaron Lewis – The Road
Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music

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