By Brian Ives
For years, country music fans knew the name “Chris Stapleton,” because it showed up in the liner notes of so many albums by so many huge artists. His writing credit was on songs by Patty Loveless, Trace Adkins, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Lee Ann Womack, Darius Rucker, George Strait, Thomas Rhett, Alan Jackson, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, among others. You may have known about his singing voice if you were a bluegrass fan: he fronted the Steeldrivers from 2008 through 2010.
Last year, the cat jumped out of the bag when he released his solo debut, Traveler; his new fans may well have wondered why he hadn’t been singing his own songs instead of giving them to other artists all along. (And more than a few country singers have told Radio.com that hearing a Stapleton-sung demo has led them to wonder the same thing.)
Seeing the man perform live brings that question to another level. He’s a great singer, one of the best in any genre, in 2016. He’s also a pretty warm frontman, and an underrated guitar player with a very tasteful style.
Last night, he and his lean, mean band traveled out to eastern Long Island’s Pennysaver Amphitheater at Bald Hill on a tour that could be dubbed “Chris Stapleton’s Victory Lap.” With five ACMs and a GRAMMY under his belt, he now has a sizable fan base, and they filed into the venue by the thousands to see the man perform, and he didn’t disappoint (other than the fact that the show was only an hour long).
He opened at about 8:30 pm with “Nobody to Blame,” and the audience went crazy; he soon noted “You guys are a rowdy bunch!” That was followed by “Midnight Train to Memphis,” one of a few songs from the Steeldrivers that made the setlist.
From there, he began to show off his guitar skills on “Outlaw State of Mind”; his style is often reminiscent of B.B. King’s clean, tasteful playing, but on “Outlaw” he takes a turn towards Neil Young territory, even kneeling down to twist the knobs on his distortion pedals towards the end of the song.
A lot has been made – rightfully so – about Stapleton’s prowess as a songwriter, but it’s noteworthy that he’s a great song interpreter as well, and doesn’t let his ego get in the way of singing a great song: he easily could have filled Traveller with originals, but the covers — the Charlie Daniels Band’s “Was It 26” and George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey” — proved highlights of both the album and the show.
Another cover was introduced as a “country shuffle.” Which is one way of referring to Tom Petty’s solo classic pro-marijuana jam “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Petty has been outspoken about not liking contemporary country (and Stapleton has even offered to help him write some new country songs); one would think the man would smile at hearing Stapleton’s rocking take on his laid-back anthem.
And that was a logical song to play before his own “Might As Well Get Stoned,” a song he sang after recalling a gig a little over a year ago when he opened for the late Merle Haggard. “After the show, he rolled a joint and got on the bus!” he recalled.
From there, he did the night’s big sing-along, “Traveller,” followed by “Fire Away,” and then introduced a new song that he’s been playing on this tour, “Livin’ Hard.”
After his classic “Tennessee Whiskey,” he and the band left the stage. A word about the band: they’re kind of like Stapleton’s songs: they add exactly what is needed, no more. His bass player and drummer are a tight rhythm section, but are able to go with Stapleton when he improvises on a guitar solo. And Stapleton’s wife and backing singer, Morgane, is probably the most restrained vocalist in popular music; even though her mic is at the front of the stage, right next to Stapleton’s, she never shows off or calls attention to herself. She just adds the perfect support vocals to the song (and on a few songs, isn’t on stage at all). But when she does sing, it counts; she could easily be a lead singer on her own.
Stapleton returned to the stage with an acoustic guitar for one more song, “Whiskey and You.” Although he only played a bit more than an hour — which was the amount of time it took most attendees to get out of the parking lot — everyone left happy, and surely they all left wanting more. As it looks like Stapleton’s career will be one that lasts decades, so there will probably be many more chances to see him perform. But, pretty soon, he’ll have to start playing longer sets.