Chris Stapleton

Traveller

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Like many country troubadours, Chris Stapleton cut his teeth as a songwriter in Nashville, churning out tunes that wound up hits in the hands of others. Kenny Chesney brought "Never Wanted Anything More" to number one and Darius Rucker had a hit with "Come Back Song," but those associations suggest Stapleton would toe a mainstream line when he recorded his 2015 debut, Traveller. This new release, however, suggests something rougher and rowdier -- an Eric Church without a metallic fixation or a Sturgill Simpson stripped of arty psychedelic affectations. Something closer to a Jamey Johnson, in other words, but where Johnson often seems weighed down by the mantle of a latter-day outlaw, Stapleton is rather lithe as he slides between all manners of southern styles. Some of this smoothness derives from Stapleton's supple singing. As the rare songwriter-for-hire who also has considerable performance chops, Stapleton is sensitive to the needs of an individual song, something that is evident when he's covering "Tennessee Whiskey" -- a Dean Dillon & Linda Hargrove tune popularized by George Jones and David Allan Coe in the early '80s -- lending the composition a welcome smolder, but the strength of Traveller lies in how he can similarly modulate the execution of his originals. He has a variety of songs here, too, casually switching gears between bluegrass waltz, Southern rockers, crunching blues, soulful slow-burners, and swaggering outlaw anthems -- every one of them belonging to a tradition, but none sounding musty due to Stapleton's casualness. Never once does he belabor his range, nor does he emphasize the sharply sculpted songs. Everything flows naturally, and that ease is so alluring upon the first spin of Traveller that it's not until repeated visits that the depth of the album becomes apparent.

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