“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d play a place this big in Columbus, Ohio,” marvels Chris Stapleton; a packed hockey arena roars back at him. On a Friday night in early November, the biggest name in real country music is holding court in Nationwide Arena, home of the Columbus Blue Jackets and the sort of gargantuan venue usually reserved for the mass-market pop-country goofballs that theoretically make up his opposition. But Stapleton is a uniter, not a divider, an affable harmonizer who radiates prestige grit and easy car-radio appeal. He’s both the chart-topper and the critical darling, the medicine and the sugar, mesmerizing a huge crowd with as few arena-rock frills as possible.
“I mean, it looks like the Death Star, but it ultimately was not built because of that,” is how he’d explained his stage set to me that morning, describing a pixelated porcupine shell that indeed looks like a moon base carved out of acoustic foam. No pyro, no lasers: “I’m not the guy who’s gonna remember not to step on the dynamite.” The only special effect is his burly, bluesy roar, which makes even the cheap seats feel like luxe recliners, as though he’s crammed tens of thousands of soused revelers into his living room.
You can distill Stapleton’s appeal down to the six seconds he and his wife, the singer and tambourine specialist Morgane Stapleton, spend tearing hungrily into the word fire during the chorus of “Fire Away,” a graceful waltz that lights up his debut album, 2015’s Traveller.
Traveller was simultaneously the culmination of 15 years’ lower-profile work—Stapleton, a Kentucky native turned crack Nashville songwriter, also led both a bluegrass band and a Southern rock band—and a riotous overnight success. The night in question: November 2015’s CMA Awards, wherein Stapleton torched the joint alongside Justin Timberlake while swiping statues for Album of the Year, New Artist of the Year, and Male Vocalist of the Year from far glitzier and more famous people. It was a genuine shock, and an unending delight.
“My manager, who’s normally a very reserved gentleman, by the end of the night, he was jumping up and down and hugging me, and he’s not, like, a hugging dude,” Stapleton recalls. “It just felt like being on the all-star team, the Olympic team, and winning the slam dunk contest all in one night.”
Suddenly a “your favorite artist’s favorite artist” industry secret was a household name with a no. 1 album, a Sasquatch-as-Cinderella story that felt like a palace coup. Critics and strident genre purists are always hailing some relatively underground singer—from Sturgill Simpson to Ashley Monroe to Jason Isbell—as an official country music savior, an antidote to the boorish and boring and bastardized slickness still clogging country radio. But Stapleton got this royal treatment from the monolithic Nashville establishment itself, live onstage at a major award show, rebuking the genre’s staid old soft-rocking superstars and frattish quasi-rapping young bucks alike. The message was unmistakable: Sound like this guy instead. Listen to this guy instead.
What’s almost as shocking is that the message stuck, or at least Stapleton did. Traveller is one of the best-selling country albums of this year, alongside its official follow-up, the spare and lovely From A Room: Volume 1, which Stapleton released in May. (Another austere nine-song set, From A Room: Volume 2, is out December 1.) Stapleton has spent most of 2017 touring sheds with Morgane (now pregnant with twins) and the rest of his minimalist backing band behind him. A week after the Columbus gig, he picked up repeat Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year trophies at the 2017 CMAs. He’s pulled off the neatest trick of all, which is to become the establishment without taking on the establishment’s usual stuffiness.
Stapleton turns 40 in April, a milestone birthday that doesn’t plague him like the last one did. “When I turned 30, I was like, ‘Man, I don't know. I gotta get my shit together.’” The fact that he manifestly got his shit together certainly helps—Stapleton is now successful and influential beyond his 30-year-old self’s wildest dreams.
“I don't think anybody pictures doing the things we’re doing,” he says, reclining on a backstage couch the morning of the Columbus show. “When you’re doing them, it still seems fake. I had a cousin come to a show last night, and he’s like, ‘You know, six years ago you were playing’ … I was playing at a club, maybe not much bigger than this room right now. So he says, ‘Does that feel weird to you? … ’Cause it feels weird to me.’” Stapleton laughs. “You see a bunch of people show up, and you wonder sometimes where they come from. But you’re glad that they’re there.”
For an object lesson in pre- and post-stardom Chris Stapleton, take one of the best songs he’s cowritten to date, the sad-sack imminent-breakup ballad “Either Way.” Lee Ann Womack released it in 2008, a warm and lush full-band version with Stapleton himself howling alongside her on the chorus. It’s a perfectly lovely rendition of a great song. But Stapleton’s solo version on From A Room: Volume 1 is vastly superior, just an acoustic guitar and his serrated voice, which can go full nuclear in an instant, with all the pathos you can stand and nothing else around that can even threaten to dilute it.
Both From A Room albums—produced by revivalist totem Dave Cobb, who also handled Traveller—consist entirely of old material, most of it Stapleton’s own. “I think that's a real good litmus test for songs,” Stapleton explains. “If a song is 10 years old and you still like it, then it's like, ‘OK, it's probably pretty good. Let's use this.’ It's real easy to write a song and be excited about it the day that you're writing it. I used to do that when I was younger; think that everything that I wrote, the day that I wrote it, was the best thing in the world. And that's just not true. Some days they're diamonds, and other days they're not.”
Some of those diamonds are rougher than others: The Nationwide Arena crowd sings along en masse to the gently swaying “Broken Halos,” a delicate Volume 1 highlight, but the loudest and rowdiest cheers are reserved for gnarlier outbursts like “Midnight Train to Memphis” or the slow-creep Traveller climax “Outlaw State of Mind.” Stapleton is the sort of guy who’ll belt out the first verse of “Free Bird” without anyone having to yell out “‘Free Bird!,” which is cool, because he’s one of the only humans alive you’d actually want to hear sing “Free Bird.” There is plenty of outlaw-country menace to him, but a little classic-rock bombast, too. He’d have fared equally well in either the Highwaymen or the Fabulous Thunderbirds. He can channel either Waylon Jennings or Bob Seger.
Much of the imminent From A Room: Volume 2 has a mellow, almost childlike quality, kicking off with “Millionaire” (“They say love is more precious than gold”) and wrapping up with “Friendship” (“We got friendship / The kind that lasts a lifetime”). “A Simple Song,” which Stapleton cowrote with his father-in-law, reels off a laundry list of kitchen-table woes (“Sister got laid off last fall / And I got high cholesterol”) but wipes them all away with the chorus:
But I love my life
And it’s somethin’ to see
It’s the kids, and the dogs, and you and me
The simplest songs are often the toughest to write, naturally, but the payoff can be huge. “I always think less words mean more in songs,” Stapleton says. “If there's one word that can cover what somebody's trying to do in four, do that. And then you can get a lot more to the point of it and let people find the extra words in their heart.”
Stapleton’s live shows have their rowdier moments—later in Columbus, one of his longer monologues is a plea to stop a few near-fistfights breaking out amid the crowd on the arena floor—but a winsomely find-the-words-in-your-heart sentimentality pervades. “Tennessee Whiskey” usually begins with an extended band introduction, with Chris lingering on Morgane. (“She’s the beauty that tames this beast.”) Their two young children usually join them on the road, a scenario that will get much more complicated once the twins are born, but Stapleton concedes that “these are country-music-singer-playing-in-a-hockey-stadium problems to have.”
Another one of those problems is how to keep success this improbable going, but Stapleton may have already solved that one simply by not thinking about it, by being so aggressively, casually himself that he somehow becomes too himself to fail. Stapleton’s opening act in Columbus was Marty Stuart, the magnificently coiffed country lifer whose set spanned from rockabilly to bluegrass and combined a schoolboy’s zeal with a 59-year-old’s cool precision. Stapleton might sound nothing like him 20 years from now, but there is much to emulate all the same. “I always gravitate to artists who have had longevity, and who have had the ability to maintain musical integrity and a certain level of success,” Stapleton says. “But to me, the musical integrity is the success.”
“You know, I always get interesting advice from some of the guys who have been around a long time,” he continues. “When I have a minute alone with them sometimes, I'm like, ‘Do you have any advice for me?’ Marty’s advice was to save your money. And then, John Prine’s advice was to get you a Cadillac.” He laughs. Get you a country star that can do both.