Photo courtesy of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment
Koka Booth Amphitheatre, Cary
Friday, May 20, 2016
There was a bit of confusion at the pre-show parking lot party on Friday in Cary.
“Is he the guy who sang with Justin Timberlake?” asked a young woman outside Koka Booth Amphitheatre, where old-school country music sensation Chris Stapleton was set to perform songs from his solo debut, Traveller
, to a sold-out crowd later that night.
Of Stapleton’s many musical collaborators—critically acclaimed bluegrass favorites The Steeldrivers, sophisticated radio song-pickers like Josh Turner, George Strait, and Kenny Chesney, and reigning country bro Luke Bryan, who pulled him onstage for a 2013 awards show performance
—it took the former NSYNC vocalist to lift him out of industry insider status and into tipsy tailgating territory. If that sounds like a slight, it’s not. For modern country musicians, a rowdy pre-gig crowd of cornhole and coolers is a sure sign of success.
To be fair, that November 2015 duet
during the Country Music Association Awards show was truly a coming-out moment for country music’s best-kept secret. The mash-up of Stapleton’s jazzy take on the George Jones classic “Tennessee Whiskey”
with Timberlake’s “Drink You Away”
spanned nearly eight minutes, an eternity on country-award shows, where performances by newcomers (or even The Possum himself
) are often relegated to tosses to commercial breaks.
Later that night, Stapleton went on to win New Artist of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, and Album of the Year, perhaps signaling a sea change in a genre recently dominated by hip-hop and arena-rock influences. He swept the 2016 Association of Country Music Awards in similar fashion before scoring a big coup at the 2016 Grammy Awards with Best Country Album and Best Country Solo Performance. Sales of the stellar Traveller
topped 1.3 million, making it the underdog success story of the year.
These were the major pieces in play as Stapleton lumbered on stage under tall, swaying pine trees for nearly seven thousand people, a big jump in size since last June’s sold-out Lincoln Theatre gig
. Four movie-set spotlights cast a golden glow on the singer and his lean three-person band, including wife Morgane Stapleton. Two smoke machines added to the already misty late-May air. The show felt big, the crowd electric.
Stapleton plowed through the spirited, self-aware “Nobody To Blame” and slow-burning “Outlaw State of Mind” to open the set before addressing the crowd with a Solo cup salute. The searing scratchiness of his big voice was on full display during the hard-rocking Steeldrivers cut “Midnight Train to Memphis,”
while album highlights “Traveller”
and “Might As Well Get Stoned”
drew some of the night's biggest cheers.
Voice excepted, Stapleton’s biggest live asset is Morgane. The night’s two best moments depended on her, both as inspiration and harmony. He introduced the tender “More of You,”
co-written with North Carolina native Ronnie Bowman, as a song about their relationship, and sang it directly to her. Later, she took lead on a haunting, intimate version of “You Are My Sunshine,” softening the song’s final warning with an Ashley Monroe-like lilt.
That chemistry wasn’t enough to turn attention from some of the holes of the evening. Traveller
staples like current radio single “Parachute” and the album’s brilliant version of The Charlie Daniels Band’s “Was it 26”
were curiously missing. Stapleton’s beloved Don Williams covers were also absent, as was any nod to his superstar songwriting cuts. When Stapleton returned to stage for a solo acoustic encore, the crowd’s confusion seemed assuaged—that is, until it realized it was a one-and-done rendition of “Whiskey and You.”
Throughout the night, his stage banter never reached the humor and conversation of that June 2015 show in downtown Raleigh.
These issues felt like the growing pains of a performer more accustomed to sweaty jam sessions in honky tonks, where reading the crowd and pushing the limits of venue cut-off times is a little easier to do. But after a year’s worth of milestones—Timberlake duet, Saturday Night Live
, an overall Album of the Year Grammy nomination, and a platinum-selling record included—Stapleton simply doesn’t have those luxuries anymore.