Chris Stapleton's star keeps rising
Chris Stapleton’s rise to the top of the country music world has been nothing short of astonishing. Before the Nashville singer-songwriter hit it big, mainstream country was dominated for many years by slick, pop-friendly artists, often with generic, interchangeable songs. Country radio is still full of artists like that, but Stapleton has broken through with his singular voice, both as a performer and as a songwriter. His ascent can be clearly illustrated via his various Vegas live performances over the last few years, going from mid-level act on a festival bill to headlining theaters to now headlining at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, one of the biggest venues in town.
For years, Stapleton was one of those songwriters helping to churn out hits for other country performers, with credits on songs by artists like Kenny Chesney, George Strait and Luke Bryan, all of whom took songs co-written by Stapleton to the top of the country singles charts. Even as he was working hard as part of the Nashville machine, Stapleton took on his own projects, recording two albums as the lead singer of bluegrass band The SteelDrivers and one as the frontman for Southern rockers The Jompson Brothers. Both of those bands achieved critical acclaim and minor success within their genres (and The SteelDrivers continued after Stapleton left, winning a Grammy in 2016), but neither one broke out into the mainstream.
Listening to Stapleton’s debut solo album, 2015’s Traveller, it’s almost hard to believe that it was what finally brought him to country stardom. Although it features versions of some of the songs that he had originally written for other artists (including “Whiskey and You,” previously recorded by Tim McGraw), there’s nothing remotely commercial about Traveller, which is built around sparse arrangements, organic instrumentation and Stapleton’s raw, often anguished voice. Produced by Dave Cobb, who’s a linchpin of the current alternative country and Americana scene, Traveller is a deeply personal project in a genre filled with homogeneity and anonymity.
Perhaps that’s why it resonated with audiences so well, though, selling more than 2 million copies, winning two Grammys and topping numerous year-end best-of lists. Stapleton followed it up with two albums in 2017, From a Room Volumes 1 and 2, released seven months apart. Despite his newfound fame, Stapleton has stuck to his roots, filling From a Room with the same gritty outlaw country, blues and Southern rock as on Traveller, working again with Cobb as producer. For his live show, Stapleton also keeps things simple, often performing with just a handful of band members, almost always including his wife Morgane on harmony vocals.
Stapleton’s rise has also helped put a spotlight on other alt-country and Americana performers, including artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, whose recent albums have received widespread acclaim and growing popularity. Stapleton will be bringing along rising outlaw country singer-songwriter Nikki Lane as the opener for his Vegas show, continuing to do his part to broaden the horizons of mainstream country music.
MGM Grand, 8 p.m. March 23, $49-$115 plus tax and fee. 800.745.3000 Ticketmaster