By Brian Ives
Right about now, scores of indie rock, hip-hop and EDM artists are prepping for a high profile two-weekend stint in the California desert to perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. It takes over the Empire Polo Club in Indio, from April 15 through 17, with a lineup that features hipster favorites (LCD Soundsystem and CHVRCHES), EDM acts (Calvin Harris, Zedd), hip-hop (Ice Cube, A$AP Rocky, Run the Jewels), along with legendary reunited rock legends Guns N Roses. The entire lineup then returns for a second weekend, April 22 through 24.
And then, the rockers, rappers, hipsters and DJs leave the desert to make way for a caravan of country acts known as the Stagecoach Festival, which takes place at the same venue the following weekend. From April 28 through May 1, Eric Church, Sam Hunt, Carrie Underwood, the Band Perry, Luke Bryan, Little Big Town and rock legend John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival will take the stage.
And there’s but one artist who will play all three weekends in Indio: Chris Stapleton. The man’s profile has risen dramatically lately, but he’s been getting love from Nashville for quite a while. During the opening segment from last night’s ACM Awards, the show’s co-hosts Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley joked about which of them was responsible for Stapleton’s career, since they’d both cut songs that he’d written. Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum‘s Charles Kelley and Thomas Rhett each stood up in the audience to add their respective opinion; each claimed to be the guy truly responsible for the man’s newfound success. They’d all recorded his songs as well. Miranda Lambert, Darius Rucker, Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, all in attendance, could have joined in, as well; yep, they have Stapleton’s compositions in their catalogs as well. But until recently, the man was mostly known in the country community.
That started to change with last year’s Traveller, his debut album as a solo act. He’s made quite an impact since its release in May of 2015, with acclaim from both critics (it made Rolling Stone‘s list of the top albums of the year), and fans (it has been certified platinum for more than a million sold).
And the accolades for the album just keep coming: at last night’s ACMs he won Album of the Year, Best Male Vocalist, Best New Male Vocalist, and Best Songwriter, while “Nobody to Blame” won Song of the Year. Just a few weeks earlier at the GRAMMYs, he won Best Country Album and Best Country Solo Performance for the title track.
It’s not just country singers who love him: at the GRAMMYs, he performed as part of the B.B. King tribute with Gary Clark Jr. and Bonnie Raitt; this wasn’t just a clever marketing idea; as a guitarist and as a singer, Stapleton was fully capable of paying proper tribute to the beloved blues legend. A few weeks earlier, he was tapped to perform at a John Lennon tribute concert in New York City; he sang the Beatles‘ “Don’t Let Me Down” with Sheryl Crow and Killers frontman Brandon Flowers. Then, he played “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
And, of course, it was his now-legendary performance with Justin Timberlake at a country awards show in November of 2015 that rocketed him to A-list status. But what is it about Stapleton that allows him to cross into so many other genres, without seeming to “sell out” or desert his country music credentials?
It could be because he started out as a member of bluegrass group the Steeldrivers; in bluegrass, few would doubt your authenticity, because who would play bluegrass for the money? From there he went to a southern rock band called the Jompson Brothers before making the leap as a solo artist. But all the while, he was working as a writer in Nashville, and he started landing cuts on albums by some pretty big names, including many that were mentioned above. As a songwriter, he’s nearly without peer.
But it’s most likely his voice, and the conviction with which he uses it, that has won over rock fans, and has convinced concert promoters that they could send him to places where they wouldn’t send, say, Blake or Luke or Aldean. Hell, Darius Rucker came from a rock band, but with all due respect, it’s unlikely that Coachella or Lollapalooza (another alt-rock fest on Stapleton’s schedule this summer) would invite him.
That’s because when you see Stapleton, you don’t know what you’re getting. Yeah, he could be a long-haired prolifically bearded country boy like Hank Williams Jr. (with whom he’s also touring this summer); but he could be a southern rocker in the vein of the Drive-By Truckers (indeed, he’s playing shows with former Trucker and fellow GRAMMY winner Jason Isbell this summer as well). He could even be a hirsute Brooklynite planning a soon-to-be-regreted neck tattoo (but as soon as he speaks a word, that possibility is eliminated).
When you hear him sing, none of that matters, anyway. He could have been a guy fronting a band that Lynyrd Skynyrd toured with during the glory days of southern rock. Or a soul music belter from the 1960s. Or the best male country singer in any era you could name.
We’re fortunate that he happens to be the best male country singer of this particular era, right now. On one hand, we live in an age where everyone seems open to listening to a little bit of everything. On the other, there’s very few artists that seem to be able to cross over to everyone, transcending their original genre, in the way that Dolly Parton or Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen or Prince used to do. So it’s a wonderful thing that you can enjoy listening to Stapleton while you’re waiting for Rancid or Calvin Harris at Coachella; in between Lee Ann Womack and John Fogerty at Stagecoach, or in the car with your kids, your parents or your grandparents.
And that’s the way the best music works. Regardless who an artist was initially marketed to, they’ll eventually find their way to everyone. Don’t look now, but we may be watching that unfold in front of our eyes with this very talented singer/songwriter.