As of May 5, 2015, if you’re presented with the question “What are you listening to?”, the answer should be an easy one: Chris Stapleton’s highly-anticipated full-length album, Traveller. For years, Stapleton has remained one of country’s best-kept secrets, writing songs for the likes of Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney and even Adele, and fronting the bluegrass band, The SteelDrivers. While 2013’s “What Are You Listening To?” introduced some to his unique voice and undeniable authenticity, it’s with Traveller that he declares that he’s here and more talented than 95% of the acts currently dominating country radio.
The album opens with its title-track, the banjo-laden “Traveller,” an ode to the lifestyle of a gypsy, but even more importantly, the perfect descriptor for this album. With the stories told by Chris Stapleton’s voice, the listener is immediately transported from old soul to southern rock to pure heartbreaking balladry, with each song entrenched in truth and grit. While the 14 song collection features 12 tracks written by Stapleton and co-produced with Dave Cobb, the Kentucky native is poised to set a blaze to country music akin to that of Brandy Clark with 2013’s critically-lauded 12 Stories.
While each song tells a unique and distinct story, Stapleton’s voice naturally lends itself to loss and heartache, evident most intrinsically on “Whiskey And You.” It’s a stunning tale of heartbreak, comparing love lost to a heavy hangover. The song shines in its simplicity, with his desperate voice—at times barely a whisper—crooning over a lone acoustic guitar. “I got a problem / But it ain’t like what you think / I drink because I’m lonesome / And I’m lonesome ’cause I drink.”
While Stapleton shines in despair, it’s not all doom and gloom on Traveller. “Parachute” is an immediate standout, its tempo and driving guitar emphasized perfectly by the rasp of his voice. Additionally, “Nobody to Blame” may not have the most uplifting lyrics, but does posses a rather uplifting toe-tapping beat that isn’t far removed from the musician’s previous time with The SteelDrivers. “When the Stars Come Out” also shines in its open, breezy melody, his voice contrasting perfectly with the music for a piece of musical mastery.
“Daddy Don’t Pray Anymore” is the quintessential country story song, Stapleton’s voice revealing the story with each note. The first three minutes are slow and deliberate, our narrator simply setting up the final revelation that is sure to give most listeners goosebumps. There’s soul on full display on “Tennessee Whiskey,” a ballad comparing a woman to Tennessee whiskey, strawberry wine and a glass of brandy. However, the single most soulful moment of the album comes on its last track, the live and distressingly raw “Sometimes I Cry,” Stapleton’s voice a pained and crackling bellow over a riffy blues guitar. “Sometimes I cry,” Stapleton wails. “Sometimes I cry when I can’t do nothing else.”
“The Devil Named Music” is a most poignant piece, comparing his passion for music to the devil, admitting “I sold my soul a long time ago” over the remorseful tone of a harmonica. Finally, Stapleton cries that “the devil named music has taken my life,” and for once, if it means more albums like Traveller, we’re so happy that the devil won.