IF you watched 2018’s Brits, you probably clocked the bearded country rocker in a cowboy hat who duetted with Justin Timberlake.
His name is Chris Stapleton, one of the biggest breakthrough music stars in the US over the past five years.
He describes his performance of Say Something at the glitzy awards as “a bit like a first date” with the UK.
Stapleton’s multi-platinum debut solo album Traveller, released in 2015 and filled with songs of love, loss and whiskey, ushered in a new era of raw and real kick-ass country.
And if you think the hirsute singer looks a bit like an extra from Game Of Thrones, you’d be right.
A super fan of the fantasy drama, he appeared as a wildling turned White Walker in the final season’s epic battle episode, The Long Night.
“They just needed to throw some mud and fake blood on me and I looked the part,” says Stapleton in his engaging Kentucky drawl.
Judging from screen shots that appeared online, he could put up a good fight with the show’s most notorious brawlers, The Hound and The Mountain.
I’m speaking to Stapleton, via a long-distance call as is the norm in the year of Covid-19, to herald his fourth album, Starting Over, a tour de force of wholehearted country, soul and rock complete with towering vocals.
‘If I’m having a bad day I’ll pick up a guitar’
The 42-year-old coalminer’s son, who sings of “hillbilly blood runnin’ through my veins”, tells me about his long road to the big time, his wife and partner in “everything”, Morgane, his abiding passion for music, his deep appreciation of the late, great Tom Petty and how he’s coping with fame.
“Music is very much a compulsion for me,” says Stapleton. “I don’t have a whole lot of choice in it. I would do it even if no one paid me.
“I did it a long time for free. Hopefully I don’t have to go back to that but I still would because I love it. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll pick up a guitar. If I’m having a good day, I might pick up a guitar.”
Fame comes with its perks, of course. He explains how he appeared on Game Of Thrones, just like Ed Sheeran, despite giving a member of his management team what he believed was “an impossible task”.
“He went through the channels, found a way and told me, ‘You’ll have to fly to Belfast to do it’. I said OK, realising I’d agreed a long flight just to be an extra on Game Of Thrones.
“It was about the craziest thing you could do but shows what a big fan I was.
“Then Justin (Timberlake) called, asking me to play at the Brit Awards, so I was able to combine the trip with that.”
Stapleton is in a scene where Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow character charges through a sea of rampaging warriors. “I took my bass player with me so he’s in the scene too,” he says. “There we were, two hillbillies from east Kentucky, pretending to be wildlings.”
His most cherished memory is of seeing the terrifying Night King, played by Vladimir Furdik, in his down time but still in full menacing garb.
“We were back in the green room and there he was, just lying on the couch, chilling, looking at eBay on his phone and eating desserts off of a tray.”
So does wife Morgane, mother of their five children, share his love of Game Of Thrones?
“When it first came out, she’d just be walking by,” he replies. “Then I’d catch her standing in the doorway, accusing me of watching it because there was a lot of nudity.
“But I got her into it finally. She’s not normally into science fiction or action movies but that show got her.”
One of the most striking aspects of the singular Stapleton is how Morgane plays such a full part in his professional life, including co-writing songs and singing on stage with him.
They met on Nashville’s fabled Music Row while working at adjacent publishing houses. “We’re partners in every sense of the word,” he says. “As husband and wife, as parents, in business and creatively.
“I wouldn’t have found the courage to do a lot of things if it wasn’t for her. I find her belief in my ability much greater than my own sometimes.
“I like to tell people she has great taste in everything but men, so she vets all the songs and guides the process.
“None of what you’ve heard with my name on the outside of a record would be there were it not for my wife pushing me.”
Of course 2020 has proved challenging for the Stapletons, just like the rest of us, but Chris has found “silver linings”.
“I’ve gotten to spend more time with my children so I’ve really dug into that and we figured how to get this album out in a remote way.
“But I miss the movement, I miss the people, I miss the live music – all those things that are part of my DNA.”
They’re also missing the family dog, a rescue mutt who died a while ago, the subject of Starting Over track Maggie’s Song.
“Maggie was in our family for 14 years, a stray somebody left in a shopping cart outside Petco when she was a puppy,” says Stapleton.
“She became a friend to my children and watched over them when they were out playing.
“She was about 40 pounds, black with bit of a grey beard, maybe a lab/terrier mix. She always had a smile on her.”
The intensely emotional song describes the day Maggie died: “She woke up and couldn’t use her legs/So I laid down by her side.”
Stapleton recalls “a terrible day for everybody involved but my children in particular. My daughter had a hard time but it’s one of those things you learn in life”.
Before we go on, you need to know a bit more of Stapleton’s back story.
He’d tried studying engineering at university, dropping out after a year as his passion for music took hold. He sang in bars, performing the songs of his country music idol, Travis Tritt.
Then in 2001, he left his hometown of Staffordsville, Kentucky, to pursue a songwriting career in country music’s city of dreams, Nashville.
“I loaned some money off an uncle to move down because I knew you had to be present to win,” he says.
“Four days later, I had offers of publishing deals and that’s a very rare story, but that’s my true story.
“So, I had a deal, I had a home, I had places to write and, not long after, I had a song recorded by a hero of mine, Patty Loveless.
‘If it has alcohol in it, I’ve probably had it’
“It wasn’t a hit but Patty happens to be from eastern Kentucky, where I’m from, so I felt very comfortable with my path at that point.”
For roughly four years, Stapleton put ambitions of being a performer on the back burner.
“I didn’t really step on stage at all,” he says. “I wrote three, maybe four songs a day, went to two or three writing appointments with different people, trying to figure it out, trying to get good.”
Then, at the suggestion of one of his chief co-writers Mike Henderson, they formed a bluegrass band called The SteelDrivers.
“That was my first real band. Everybody was an A-list session musician, so my musicianship improved greatly,” he says.
“I had some other friends and we would get together in the garage and make up rock riffs. That turned into a rock band (The Jompson Brothers).”
Both acts released records, giving Stapleton crucial experience to take things to the next level.
In 2013, a solo deal with music giant Universal came his way and he released first single What Are You Listening To?, followed two years later by wildly successful album Traveller.
Anyone who’s heard Tennessee Whiskey, Whiskey And You and new song Whiskey Sunrise might detect a theme.
“I enjoy a good glass of bourbon every now and then,” says Stapleton. “I would by no means call myself an expert but if it has alcohol, I’ve probably had it in my life.
“There was a time when I probably had too much fun with things like that but I still like a good song about whiskey. A lot of my musical heroes, at least from the country scene, sang about drinking . . . George Jones with White Lightning and Merle Haggard with Misery And Gin.”
Finding fame as an older, wiser artist suits Stapleton. “I’m glad it didn’t happen when I was 19 because either I would have severely embarrassed myself or maybe even wound up dead. It’s been an adjustment, but mainly to wonderful opportunities for me and my family.”
The wistful closing song on the new album, Nashville, TN, dwells on his new-found celebrity status.
“I lived in a normal house and busloads of people would come twice a day, at 11 and two. They would pull up in my driveway and though I’ve never had a negative experience with any fan, it was unnerving.
“I’d lived 37 years of my life and had never experienced that. So we rented a house on the same street, just so the bus would stop at the other house.”
Stapleton’s song summons his feelings on rapidly changing Nashville and his sense of displacement.
“The building where I met my wife got torn down, so did the first place I ever witnessed a record being made, which was Guy Clark’s The Dark (2002).”
He cherishes memories of working with the late singer, who wrote such exquisite songs as L.A. Freeway. Two Clark covers, Worry B Gone and Old Friends, appear on Starting Over.
“He was a friend. I wrote songs with him and my wife sang on his records,” says Stapleton.
“He passed away when we were recording the last record but we didn’t have it in us to do any of his songs in that moment. Now we’ve paid tribute.”
Another key aspect of Starting Over is the presence on eight tracks of guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.
Stapleton was the support act at some of Petty’s last shows before the American icon died in 2017.
“They’re my favourite band of all time and Mike is my favourite guitar player. I love his influence on my album,” he says.
That includes two standout co-writes, funky Watch You Burn and blistering hoedown Arkansas.
As for Petty, Stapleton says that 1994’s Wildflowers “is my favourite record bar none.
“I don’t skip any songs, I want to hear it top to bottom and then let it roll again.”
With Wildflowers now expanded to a box set including unreleased songs, demos and live performances, he might take a keen interest in our interview with Petty’s daughter on this page.
“My desert island disc,” he says.
CHRIS STAPLETON: STARTING OVER
‘DAD LOVED MUSIC BUT HATED BEING FAMOUS’
IN the mid-Nineties, the late Tom Petty was in the songwriting form of his life.
When he recorded SFTW cover star Chris Stapleton’s favourite album, Wildflowers, there was enough A-grade material for a double.
The new expanded edition adds the lost tracks on companion piece All The Rest. Here, exclusively, Petty’s daughter Adria pays a loving tribute . . .
CAN you give us some special memories of Tom?
My dad was a uniquely sensitive and amazing guy. He loved old movies and, in the year before he died, he wrote down a line from a WC Fields movie and put it on a Post-it Note next to his bed. It said “nil desperandum” or don’t despair. He was so hopeful. And so wise. Such a wonderful person to be on the planet with.
You must miss him terribly but what is your father’s legacy?
It’s a four-decade-deep great American songbook . . . the legendary performances and recordings. But most of all his legacy for us is craft, a strong work ethic and taking care of the team with authenticity and decency. His life was basically a celebration of rock and roll as a pure form of uplifting magic. My dad lived his life really purely and humbly with that in mind, so he leaves us that too.
Where does the Wildflowers album rank among your father’s achievements?
It is without a doubt one of his greatest song-writing and recording achievements. There are interviews where he calls it his favourite album.
What makes it stand out?
This album feels more personal, confident and unguarded. He found a very special sound in the studio with Rick (Rubin).
Your father sang “you don’t know how it feels to be me”, did he struggle with fame?
My dad loved playing live music and being a rock star. But he did not like being “famous” and did not lean into fame and opportunities for fame. He was purely about playing live and making great music.
The song Wildflowers is a Petty classic, what makes it so loved?
It has a universal message. For people here in the US, it is a birthday, wedding and funeral song. It lovingly embraces and encourages change.
How key was the influence of co-producer Rick Rubin?
Rick played a large role in the record. Of course so did Tom and Mike (Campbell) as producers. But they surrendered some gut choices to him. You really see the vision they landed on for getting purity out of each track.
Tell us about Tom’s frustration at not being able to release a double album at the time.
It’s a shame because it really would have made a great double album. In retrospect, Rick and I think maybe he felt it would be too expensive and making a single album would be more accessible to fans.
Which of the All The Rest tracks were his favourites?
They were all favourites but he was definitely very excited about Something Could Happen and Harry Green in terms of new discoveries. Songs like Hope You Never and Hung Up And Overdue were always meant to be on Wildflowers and I think he viewed them as diamonds hidden from view.
Leave Virginia Alone was given to Rod Stewart . . . can you shed light on that song?
I love the character of Virginia my dad drew in this song. She’s very similar to Mary Jane (as in his song Mary Jane’s Last Dance) and a very forgivable misfit. “Make-up and pills and overdue bills” or “she still finds good where no one could”.He kind of idolises her in her natural way of being a bit of a mess.
From the live performances, Girl On LSD is interesting . . .
This is a perfect example of my dad ad-libbing characters and rhymes in a song. He did funny story songs like this often to kill time at sound check and sessions. Like “he gets around pretty good for a three-legged dog” is another one we have in the archive.
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