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With 'Traveller,' A Songwriter Steps Out From Country's Backstage

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With 'Traveller,' A Songwriter Steps Out From Country's Backstage

With 'Traveller,' A Songwriter Steps Out From Country's Backstage

With 'Traveller,' A Songwriter Steps Out From Country's Backstage

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/417840283/418490483" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Chris Stapleton spent years writing songs for other country artists. Traveller is his first album with his own name on the cover. Becky Fluke/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Becky Fluke/Courtesy of the artist

Chris Stapleton spent years writing songs for other country artists. Traveller is his first album with his own name on the cover.

Becky Fluke/Courtesy of the artist

Four days: That's how long Chris Stapleton had been living in Nashville when he landed his first gig as a staff songwriter in 2001. All told, he's written more than 170 songs for other artists, including hits for Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan and Darius Rucker, among others. He's sung backup for country stars and started bands with his co-writers. Now, at the ripe old age of 37, Stapleton finally has an album called Traveller — with his own name on the cover.

While trying to make that name known, Stapleton had his chance to impress the movers and shakers of country radio at their annual convention a few months ago, and decided to get personal. He walked out on stage and dedicated a song from his album to his dad, a coal miner who passed away several years ago. Stapleton didn't look out at the audience. He stared down at a memento he'd placed on a stool on stage — a big chunk of coal.

"It's not really fragile," he says, "it's heavy. That sat on my dad's desk for years. It was the first piece of coal he ever mined."

Stapleton hails from the same part of Kentucky as another famous coal miner's kid — Loretta Lynn. But he didn't zero in on music until he dropped out of college. He was driving an ice truck in Morehead, Ky., crashing on an inflatable mattress and jamming with local musicians every night. Bassist J.T. Cure was one of them, and he remembers the first time he heard a song Stapleton wrote, one called "Nobody's Fool."

"I couldn't believe that somebody could write a song that good, and they were there, and this is the guy, and we were friends hanging out and playing," Cure says. "It was just like, 'Whoa.'"

That song that Cure heard? It was later recorded by Miranda Lambert.

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Stapleton took the plunge and moved to Nashville. Thanks to a hometown connection, he got a foot in the door at a music publisher and started churning out songs for other people. To make a little extra money, he'd lend his voice to demos that were pitched to big-name singers, but he had a hard time sounding like anybody else.

"I walked into a demo session one time, and a guy said, 'I'm thinking kind of like a Trace Adkins thing,'" Stapleton remembers. "And I looked him right in the eye and said, 'Man, you've got the wrong guy. I'm gonna have to fire myself. You've got to hire somebody else.'"

So he did, and he walked out the door. "I can only be me. I have a hard time being a chameleon as a singer," he says.

At one point, Stapleton thought he'd found a record label that would let him make his own music, but "it just didn't happen," he says. After a stint playing bluegrass, he took another crack at going solo and recorded an album — which his label declined to release. A single did come out, but it sounded a bit smoother than the Chris Stapleton most people in Nashville knew. Finally, he got one more chance to go into the studio.

Traveller is the result of that last try. Morgane Stapleton sings harmony on the album, and also happens to be Stapleton's wife. She says she could always tell if her husband was coasting on his talent, just like she can tell that this album comes from a deeper place.

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"Chris can crank out songs," she says. "He can sing a demo, and just sing the song and be done with it. And then you have songs like on Traveller that he's written, and it's almost like he can't not connect with them."

In one way or another, all of the songs Stapleton wanted to record cast him in the role of a man confronting the impact of his actions.

"I had a friend one time when I first got to town, his name was Jerry Salley. Jerry Salley once told me, and this stuck with me too, that country music is not for kids," Chris Stapleton says, laughing.

The musician has a young son and daughter of his own, and he admits that both of them have listened to Traveller's tales of homesickness, heartbroken hangovers and changed locks.

"Maybe they shouldn't have, some parts of it," he says. "But you know, at some point they're gonna find out what their daddy does for a living."

People outside of Music Row are finally finding out, too.

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