All photos by Clayton Taylor Photography
There’s a moment late in the run of Chris Stapleton’s album “Traveller” that comes as a revelation. Suddenly, the production shifts. Instead of just the soaring vocals and scorching blues guitar of “Sometimes I Cry,” we hear Stapleton thanking his audience, who join in with applause. He’s been playing this song live, and we’re hearing a bit of that live cut. The trick? There are no tricks at all.
His concert last night at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion followed a bit of that familiar script. Kind of like at the end of “The Wizard of Oz,” when (spoiler alert) we learn it’s just a man behind the curtain. Stapleton and his minimalistic approach to a band – he was joined only by a bassist, drummer and backing vocalist – were similarly exposed. They stood on the stage, no supplemental video boards (other than the AMP’s house equipment) to distract from the proceedings, surrounded only by a few yellow lights.
Next at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion
Who: MercyMe with Jeremy Camp
When: 7:30 p.m. July 30
Where: Arkansas Music Pavilion, Rogers
Cost: Starting at $31
Tickets: Call 479-443-5600 or visit arkansasmusicpavilion.com for information.
Here’s where the plots diverge. The figure behind the curtain in Oz was a man, a mortal, someone with special effects that convinced us he was more than he was. The man on stage last night was actually a wizard.
Stapleton’s approach, and subsequent success, is particularly shocking in light of the modern era of country music. In a genre filled with over-produced, formula-following songs manufactured by a committee of songwriters, Stapleton is surprisingly authentic. He is, or was, one of those on the proverbial songwriting committee. He penned hits for Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and more before finding success on his own. But not before spending many years working hard in Nashville, and not before working with the bluegrass outfit The Steeldrivers and the southern rock band The Jompson Brothers.
He finally released a solo album in 2015. It’s hard to know exactly when and why “Traveller” went from being just an excellent record to being an excellent record that caught everyone’s attention, but it might have been when Stapleton and Justin Timberlake joined forces at the CMAs for a take on “Tennessee Whiskey” and JT’s “Drink You Away.”
Just know the album took off, and Stapleton with it. The list of accomplishments racked up by the man and his debut solo recording are staggering. Among those tallies are CMA’s Vocalist of the Year, New Artist of the Year and Album of the Year. He won two Grammy Awards as well, including Country Album of the Year. There was some commercial appeal, too. “Traveller” was purchased 1.4 million times, which makes it a runaway success in today’s fractured music economy.
He’s already moving forward from that album. He played two originals not included on his May 2015 debut. Those cuts were “Hard Living” and “Either Way,” the latter a song he co-wrote for Lee Ann Womack’s 2008 album “Call Me Crazy.” Returned to its owner, it has all the markings of the next hit song for Stapleton.
The collection of songs contained on “Traveller” were filtered through some of the genres he’s visited in the past, and an ample dosage of whiskey, perhaps the most-used word in last night’s concert. It’s a good thing the AMP does not sell hard alcohol. I think last night’s capacity crowd would have drank Benton Country dry (again). Stapleton and his band visited country and bluegrass and the blues and perhaps a bit of soul last night while on stage. He introduced the sparse “More of You” as a bluegrass song, and he performed it like he does many songs – with vocal help from Morgane Stapleton, his wife and touring companion. He showed off his southern rock chops in a winking nod to the crowd with a verse of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” but mostly via his exceptional guitar work. There was no rhythm guitarist to cover for him while he soloed or to keep momentum pointed ahead while he sang. I was surprised by the quality of his work, but also by the quantity. He played a lot, soloing at any occasion, and aside from a few intentionally quiet moments, Thursday’s show was a rock ‘n’ roll endeavor.
Those quieter moments, by the way, were my least favorite part of the show. Not because of content – the subdued track “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Any More” was particularly emotional – but because the crowd was quick to murmur over the playing when given a chance or a lesser-known song. The crowd was also quick to jump into a full-throated, unprompted singalong when a single appeared in the setlist. The second half of the show was a buzzsaw of hits and vocals and guitar work, and it was a thrilling run.
But very few unnecessary thrills.
Some artists need an entire bag of tricks and lights and various distracting accoutrements. This big-voiced wizard in a goofy, well-worn cowboy hat only needed his voice and a guitar.
A note about the opener: Fellow songwriter and vocalist Brandy Clark opened the proceedings. Clark and her able band played earlier this month at George’s Majestic Lounge. It’s hard to describe just how similar yet wildly different those two shows were. She played the same medley of her own “Big Day in a Small Town” followed by John Mellencamp’s classic rock radio staple “Small Town.” She played many of the same songs both evenings, actually. In the friendly confines of George’s, she was warm and personal and engaging. Faced with a sold-out crowd still working into the venue as she started, the engagement wasn’t there. She’s actually a very good fit for Stapleton, with smart songs and the requisite references to weed and whiskey. When you say the word “whiskey” in a song, and the crowd doesn’t yell back at you, it isn’t with you. Clark unfortunately met that fate last night.