The Joup Friday Album: “Traveller” — Chris Stapleton

TravellerWhen I was tagged for the Joup Friday Album, I had already been thinking for weeks that it was time to write about Chris Stapleton’s album, “Traveller.” This album won’t get out of my head, and I realize now why that is: It hasn’t been since U2’s “The Joshua Tree” that an album has had such a profound and personal impact on my life.

The reason everyone loves to rag on Nashville is because it’s so commercial and panders to the lowest-common denominator. Modern country music has become synonymous with those tacky rolled-brim cowboy hats sold at Wal-Mart and dumbass redneck jokes, which is what birthed the “alt-country” movement in the 1990s. This is nothing new: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard — the original Outlaws — fought the same battle 50 years ago.

With “Traveller,” Stapleton has done the near-impossible; he’s created an album that feels very true and authentic, but also has songs like “Nobody to Blame,” which easily gets play on modern country radio. Even though Stapleton is a part of the Nashville system — he’s written for Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Darius Rucker (oh, Hootie, for shame), Luke Bryan and Vince Gill — he’s also outside the system: He fronted The SteelDrivers, a bluegrass band, and he sings about getting stoned. That dichotomy gives “Traveller” its authenticity, and we’re all forced to admit that, on the rare occasion, it does happen that “good” and “popular” don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Admittedly, it’s upsetting to realize that people have been eating kale for years before you could buy a $1,150 necklace spelling it out in green gems and 18K gold. #damnitfeelsgoodtobeagangster

“Traveller” does what country music does best: It tells the truth. Consider “Tennessee Whiskey.” Stapleton takes this classic tune, originally recorded by George Jones and David Allen Coe, and turns it into a soft, swaying, slow-dance number. Stapleton’s version makes Coe’s seem trite and snotty, while Jones … well, you can’t deny the power of George Jones even though Stapleton makes Jones seem like Lawrence Welk.

“Tennessee Whiskey” is awkwardly personal, because when I moved back to Ohio after living for 10 years in Los Angeles, I felt lost. I went out one night to see a band play, and before you know it, I’m drinking and listening to the singer of this band croon a version of this song and thinking, “My God, my life is a country song. Shit.” And here again, Stapleton’s album sums it up in another song, “Parachute:” “You only need a drink when the whiskey is the only thing that you have left to hold.”

But those weren’t the only songs on “Traveller” that got to me.

“When the Stars Come Out” got me to open up a little bit about the 10 years I’d spent living in the City of Angels. It’s a myth that you can’t see the stars in a city like L.A. You can see the stars just fine. They twinkle so bright that they cut through any haze or smog, and when you drive out to the desert, you’ve never seen stars so bright or clear. You see the whole world open up in front of you, and your heart swells and you feel tiny and sad and wistful and happy and big and expansive all at once. That’s the vibe that Stapleton manages to capture in that song, and it’s genius. I will most likely never experience living in L.A. again, but when I put on that song, I’m back in the desert looking up at the stars — or I’m walking down Hollywood Boulevard, laughing and joking while filming a video. I’m having memories, and realizing that my experiences have irrevocably left a mark on me, but that personhood is a process of becoming.

Every song on this album holds a truth. It’s almost as if Stapleton tore pages out of a notebook, wrote down lyrics, folded each one up in a cheap plastic Easter egg and hid them in the Mercury Nashville office, waiting for someone to find them all one day and realize they had a complete set. It’s like a damn country leprechaun found a pot of gold on Music Row.

I’d like to tag Katie for the Friday album next week. This is my last piece for the magazine, and I’ve appreciated the opportunity to contribute. Joup is a great online resource for musings on life, art, travel, and music — with contributions from some great writers. 

Sara Farr

Sara Farr

Sara Farr is currently an adjunct marketing instructor at the School of Advertising Art. Previously, she worked as a graphic designer at Variety for six years, and spent 10 years before that as a music writer for various Midwestern and Los Angeles-based newspapers and magazines. Her work appears in “The Little Black Book, Music: Over a Century of the Greatest Artists, Albums, Songs, Performances and Events That Rocked the Music World.”

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