• Courtney E. Smith

Chris Stapleton Brings Outsider Influences To Nashville

Courtesy of Mercury Nashville

Chris Stapleton already has five No. 1 singles. If you haven’t heard him singing them, that’s because they were hits for some of country’s biggest artists, including Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker, George Strait, and Josh Turner.

Now Stapleton may be poised to break out on his own.

Stapleton already saw some success with the SteelDrivers (he was lead singer and guitarist with that Grammy-nominated group from 2008 to 2010), but his debut solo album Traveller puts him in the spotlight under his own name. Thanks to a wave of “outsider” country from Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, the release might be perfectly timed to push him into a prominent position. Namely, reaching an audience hungry for something mainstream country can’t give them.

With an album steeped in outlaw influences, recorded in historic RCA Studio A, helmed by producer Dave Cobb (who also worked with Simpson and Isbell), and written by the guy who penned hits for country’s biggest stars, it seems like a proposition that can’t lose. caught up with Stapleton during a phone conversation to find out about the desert inspirations that helped kickstart his songwriting for the new album, what recording in the legendary RCA Studio A did to his music, and where to stop when you’re passing through New Mexico. Have you been working on Traveller for long? When did you start on it?

Chris Stapleton: You know, I can’t remember [laughs]. The last year has been a little bit of a blur. I lost my dad in October of 2013, and my wife was kind enough to buy me an old Jeep because she knows I like old cars. It was out in Phoenix, so we flew out there and built it in the desert and kept building it all the way home. On that trip, I thought a lot about life and how we’re all just passing through it. That led to the song “Traveller,” but it also put me on a path. I guess it’s a record that my dad would have liked to have heard. He listened to a lot of outlaw country like Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson], but also soul music. My earliest memories are of listening to music in the car with him. The idea for the album was formed, there and from there, things started falling into place.

I heard about half a song off of Sturgill Simpson’s new record that he did with [producer] Dave Cobb. I didn’t know Dave, though we realized we had met I guess two or three years earlier once we talked about it. I really liked the sound of that record, so we got together, we hung out and got to know each other a little bit. And we found that we have a lot of similar opinions on music and taste, our likes and dislikes, guitars–we geeked out on gear and amps and things like that. We formed a good friendship, fairly quickly. So we went to [Mercury Records Nashville] with the idea that I’d like to record a record in that style with Dave. They initially asked me to go in and do six sides with him. We’d booked time, seven or eight days, and within two days we had six sides done [laughs]. So I called up the label and asked, “Can we just keep going?” They said go ahead and when they heard what we’d been doing, they were all in.

It’s interesting that you say you wanted to do something in the outlaw aesthetic that your dad listened to, but you recorded in RCA Studio A, which couldn’t be more Nashville. How did that come to be?

Well you know Waylon Jennings recorded in there, so it’s not necessarily a departure. Robby Turner played steel [guitar] on the record with me, he played with Waylon for 15 years. Mickey Raphael played harp on it, he’s played with Willie Nelson and still does to this day. If you go in, you’ll realize that it’s not just a Nashville thing. It’s a studio that belongs to music. Songs like “I Will Always Love You” were recorded in there. It’s one of those studios that’s a piece of music history, not just Nashville history. Elvis recorded in there. The list goes on and on and on if you research the place. It’s in Nashville, but it’s not just something that belongs to Nashville.

At the time when I decided to record in there, it was a happy accident. We wanted to go record in Sound Recording A, which Dave and I both like a lot, but they weren’t available in the time slots that we had. So I asked what else they he liked and Dave mentioned RCA. At the time they were making plans to tear it down, so I said we should probably go do it just to say that we recorded in there. We thought at the time that we might be one of the last records that ever got made in there. Luckily Aubrey [Preston] stepped up and bought the place and is taking great pains to preserve it, turning it into the historical monument that it should be.

I was wondering if your answer to that question would be that you’d heard about the studio being marked for demolition and wanted to record there.

It did kind of happen that way. I had never stepped foot in the room until the first day I recorded in there. There’s something in the walls there. You can feel things. They’ve got lyric sheets from Dolly Parton upstairs where she recorded “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” or something on the same day [laughs]. Just crazy stuff like that which is undeniable. You can’t manufacture that, it just has to exist.

Are there any songs on the album you can point to and say RCA Studio A had a palpable effect on?

All of them. Every song that was played in there was affected by the fact that we were in there. It’s like playing in the Ryman Auditorium, you can’t help but know that you’re in the Ryman when you play the Ryman. It can elevate you and frighten you at the same time. In this case, for me personally, I think the location elevated what we were doing.

Certainly, the room has a sound and if you don’t want that sound you don’t need to be in that room. But yeah–we recorded with all of us in one room, because it’s large enough to do that and we’re using the sound of the room. We try to capture as much of that were just performances, capturing just performances. I think we did a pretty good job of it. It’s all kind of a blur for me, I could tell you moments that happened within the course of doing it but we were just having fun, which I think was the way the music should be played. We have a tendency in Nashville to put restrictions on it, with set times to start and finish. We tried to eliminate as much of that as we could, to make it just guys playing music and enjoying music. To make it feel like hanging out and because we’d be playing music anyway, we just happened to have RCA A and great engineers and great equipment at our disposal. It was a kid in a candy store [feeling] for everybody involved.

What lead you to choose “Traveller” as the title track?

I wrote that song while traveling through the desert. I can’t remember if it was sunrise or sunset, but it was a twilight hour, and I’m sure I was holding my phone up because I wrote the whole thing while I was driving.

The songs that are on the record represent everything from songs that I’ve loved by other artists [he covers “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Was It 26”], to things that I’ve written over the past 12 or 13 years. There’s a wide range, which makes it work as a palatable record.

When you were making that desert drive, did you stop anywhere along the way?

My wife and I love the Southwest. We love the landscape and the people and everything made with green chilies. Any excuse we have to get out there, we go and drive through the desert; Albuquerque to Santa Fe over to Phoenix and Taos, New Mexico. All of those places are wonderful, magical places to us. We discovered that by driving the Highway 1 drive once, turning left at Bakersfield, California and going on to Albuquerque [laughs]. Those are pieces of Americana and music history that are some of the many wonderful things to see in the United States of America. You don’t have to travel across an ocean to see amazing things. You just have to get out there and find them.

On this trip, we were deliberate in our search for oddities. We stopped at a wonderful hotel full of oddities that Hollywood cowboy stars used to stay at, the Historic El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico. It’s like a time warp. You walk in there and they have pictures of all the cowboy stars eating breakfast at the place – and a great cup of coffee. On my last trip there I was having a cup, and a priest from across the street came by and offered me a rosary that he had made by hand and told me he enjoyed my music.

Things like that are awesome to me; they tell you that you’re doing the things you’re supposed to be doing.

Originally published in 2015.

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