Like many Country singers, 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 suggested that he would toe a mainstream line when he recorded his own 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 he often seems weighed down by the mantle of a latter-day outlaw, Chris Stapleton is rather lithe as he slides between all manners of southern styles. As the rare songwriter-for-hire who also has considerable performance chops, Chris 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 that was popularised by George Jones and David Allan Coe in the early ’80s, 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. Never once does he labour his range, nor does he emphasize the sharply sculpted songs. Everything flows naturally, and that ease is so alluring on the first spin of Traveller that it’s not until after repeated listens that the actual depth of the album eventually becomes apparent.
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