Standing on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre two weeks ago, Chris Stapleton couldn't have looked less like a country music star.
His face buried beneath a hat and a healthy crop of hair and beard, the Lexington-born, Paintsville/Staffordsville-reared songwriter resembled less the Nashville of today and more the Central Texas of 40 years ago. That pretty much held true for the music, too, as Stapleton and an unfussy combo that included his wife, Morgane Stapleton, as a singing partner, casually sailed through the weary but worldly title tune to his debut album, Traveller, to be released Tuesday.
The setting was telling as well. Despite a songwriting career that has spun No. 1 country hits for Luke Bryan (the recent Academy of Country Music Song of the Year nominee Drink a Beer), Kenny Chesney (Never Wanted Nothing More) and George Strait (Love's Gonna Make It Alright), Stapleton wasn't making his network television debut in Nashville. He was, instead, in a cherished New York theater as a musical guest during the final weeks of The Late Show with David Letterman.
"It was a surreal thing," Stapleton says. "It's one thing to get to stand there in the Ed Sullivan Theater and be on that show, but to be in the last home stretch of what has become a real iconic thing — man, that was really a wonderful honor."
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New York and Nashville were obviously far from Stapleton's Eastern Kentucky roots. His mother and his coal-mining father could "hold a tune," but they were especially encouraging as active listeners of the country artists who emerged from the region around them.
"It's just part of the fabric of being from Kentucky," says Stapleton, 37. "Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam and Patty Loveless, the list goes on and on. Those names are just part of life in Kentucky. You can't help but be aware of them and be influenced by them. It's almost genetic in the sense that you don't have an existence that doesn't involve their music."
A recommendation by Jesse Wells from the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University introduced Stapleton to songsmith Steve Leslie. The latter, in turn, helped connect Stapleton with the Nashville songwriting community.
"There was nothing frightening about it at all," Stapleton says of his move to Nashville. "I tried college and that didn't take. I tried various other jobs that didn't really take just because of the disinterest in all things but music.
"Boy, as soon as I found out someone would pay you to write songs and play, I said, 'That's the job for me. I've got to figure out how to do that.' So I was lucky enough to meet some of the right people fairly early in town. I had a publishing deal about four days after moving to Nashville."
Four days? In one of the most competitive music markets anywhere, Stapleton's songwriting career was up and running in four days?
"That's not most people's story," Stapleton says with a laugh. "But that's mine."
Two very different performance projects soon surfaced to create the possibility of an eventual solo career. The first was a stint as vocalist and co-guitarist with the Steeldrivers, a progressive bluegrass troupe made up of Nashville A-list players.
"The Steeldrivers certainly challenged me as a player because I never saw myself as a bluegrass flat-picking guitar player. Neither did bluegrass flat-picking guitar players, but I still got to test myself. I got better as a musician because all the other members of the band were hot-shot players that were very well respected."
The second was a cranky, highly electric rock 'n' roll outfit called the Jompson Brothers that returned Stapleton to Lexington for several performances at Cosmic Charlie's.
"We went out with the songs, played some rock 'n' roll shows and did it all for the love of it, really," Stapleton says. "The Steeldrivers were the same way. I try to operate from that place at all times. I don't like that opportunist kind of musical mentality. But it was a wonderful thing. We were loud and playing rock 'n' roll. We learned the hard way there wasn't much rock radio left, but we sure had a lot of fun. It was just a lot of self- indulgent guitar madness. But there's nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with that at all."
With the release Tuesday of Traveller (produced by Dave Cobb, who has overseen the recent solo records of another newly celebrated Kentucky country stylist, Sturgill Simpson), Stapleton has emerged as an artist, finally singing his own songs under his own name.
"Regardless of commercial reception or whatever, I just can't imagine being any prouder of this record," Stapleton says. "I hope people give it a listen — as in a hard listen. I hope they listen to it actively, engage in the music and not treat it as some kind of background noise. That's my hope, anyway."