The breakout star had the top-selling country album of 2016. He’s playing KeyArena on Tuesday, March 28.
On the surface, songwriter and country crooner Chris Stapleton might seem like a late bloomer when it comes to finding stardom.
The bearded troubadour won a Grammy in 2016 for his debut solo album “Traveller,” reaching that milestone at age 37. By that age, Brad Paisley already had released eight albums and set a record for most consecutive top-10 singles.
But Stapleton, who plays KeyArena on Friday, March 28, was quietly honing his incisive songwriting by putting in his time at Music Row publishing house Sea Gayle Music in Nashville and fronting bands including The SteelDrivers and The Jompson Brothers.
Chris Stapleton with special guest Maren Morris
7 p.m. Tuesday, March 28, KeyArena, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; sold out.
While he scored a No. 1 hit for Kenny Chesney with 2007’s “Never Wanted Nothing More,” and has penned dozens of songs for other artists, the real payoff was the introspective “Traveller.” The album’s easygoing blend of Southern rock, bluegrass and old-school country proved transcendent enough to land it at the top of the Billboard 200, Billboard Top Country Albums and Billboard Folk Albums weekly charts. It became the top-selling country album of 2016.
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A common lament among relapsed country-music fans is that the genre has become so filled with trucks, beers and bizarre electronic adornments that nobody bothers to tell stories anymore. That’s not exactly a fair assessment, but it’s more than just old men screaming at the clouds. You might like Sam Hunt, but don’t fool yourself into thinking “Body Like a Back Road” is country music.
For the purists who have turned their backs on country, Stapleton and fellow iconoclast Sturgill Simpson (who succeeded Stapleton by winning a Grammy for best country album this year for his exquisite “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”) represent a much-craved tonic. From the first inviting guitar lick of its title track, “Traveller” is the sonic equivalent of slipping into your favorite college sweatshirt: warm, familiar and immediately comforting.
Most, if not all, mainstream country artists would do well to pay attention to the delicate, clean production throughout the album. Mandolin, banjo, pedal steel guitar are all given room to shine, even when Stapleton dips his toe into some menacing country rock in “Nobody to Blame” or electrified bluesy swagger in “Might As Well Get Stoned.” It is the kind of refined, authentic sound that you simply do not see finding mainstream success easily. It’s worth celebrating for that alone.
Since Stapleton operates with such nuance, cavernous KeyArena becomes a less-than-ideal spot to hear him, but the choice of venue speaks more to his skyrocketing popularity than anything else. Don’t let that stop you from appreciating an artist who reminds us what country music is supposed to sound like.