On Thursday night at Verizon Arena, Kentucky native Chris Stapleton arrived in Arkansas fresh off of winning Country Music Association awards for Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year. Stapleton and the small crew behind him played a two hour set for over thirteen thousand very appreciative fans. Perhaps not since the days of hip-hop dabbling Big & Rich has a hot country music act diverged so much from country music orthodoxy.
Stapleton opened by walking on the stage filled with billowing smoke and ripped off a bruising rendition of “Might As Well Get Stoned,” off his debut hit album Traveller. The smoke was practically the only special effect of the night. If there has been a show more strip-down and less dependent on stage effects than Stapleton's, it must have been staged in the parking lot at off hours
Now in his late 30s, Stapleton has spent much of his career as a Nashville songwriter writing hits for conventional country acts like Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley. Live, the musician looks like a bearded mountain man and barely nods at traditional country music (no pedal steel or fiddle in his Verizon outfit – just bass, drums and vocal support by Stapleton’s wife, Morgane). The result is a performance that swerves back and forth between soulful southern rock and unvarnished blues.
Any complaints by Stapleton’s crowd that the proceedings weren’t country enough couldn’t be heard over the cheers for songs such as “Parachute,” “Broken Halos” and “Traveller,” which lost none of its light, infectious charm being played live. Certainly Stapleton’s records can’t quite capture the power of his live singing voice or the amazing warmth trading off with the hammer blows delivered by guitar.
It’s hard not to frame Stapleton’s rise as a backlash against the tailgatin’ party time that has dominated Nashville for the last several years. Stapleton earned all sorts of special bonus points by selecting veteran virtuoso Marty Stuart as an opening act. Stuart is another country music treasure who doesn’t feel any special devotion to coloring within Nashville’s lines. Stuart’s band – dubbed yes, the Fabulous Superlatives -- played a surf music instrumental and a terrific Woody Gutherie song. Conclusion: American music, ain’t it great?