Thursday, February 04, 2016


I generally say I'm not a fan of hip hop or country music - in reality, though, I'm a fan of good music and it's just that not much of what comes out of hip hop and country is ever all that good. This year we've got some real treats, especially in the Grammy Best Album category. I compare hip-hop and country because they are essentially two branches of the same tree. Both usually comprise simple, straightforward lyrics that are often outright storytelling in nature.

While Chris Stapleton is country, because of his instrumentation, demeanor, and Nashville connections, he has much more a classic southern rock sound. The charts, ironically, have no real place for rock music that isn't alternative anymore - and he certainly fits well with country music, but there is something more appealing to his debut record, Traveller. Stapleton combines a real blues feel to both the lyrics and with his vocals - that made a perfect fit when he joined up with Justin Timberlake at the CMAs for a performance that went viral and launched his popular noteriety that's culminated with this Best Album Grammy nomination.

The song from that performance, "Tennessee Whiskey" is perhaps his most popular, even though its yet to be formally released as a single. A cover of George Jones' 1983 hit, Stapleton's version it perfectly illustrates what Traveller has to offer. Blues, with country roots, but also a broader scope of musicality and spare production that create a unique brand for a guy who's been a Nashville hit maker, writing for huge acts across all genres and just now breaking out, in his late 30's, on his own terms. The music fits the man - or at the least the perception he gives off in interviews and public statements.

The vocals on "Fire Away" sound a bit like Springsteen. The overall vibe of "Parachute" is pure early 70's mellow rock, save for the decidedly simple, country guitar riff. But more than anything else one discovers on Traveller is the vocal talent Stapleton brings to th table. He can just flat out sing. His wife, Morgane, a singer-songwriter in her own right backs him up for the most part and adds some real depth - she's sold for his success more than any other backup singer could be, and it shows.

It would be awesome if the Grammy's would find a way to pair Stapleton and Kendrick Lamar, but seeing as how they're both up for the big award, they'll likely get their own performances. Maybe Stapleton can headline the Glen Frey tribute? He would hit that out of the park. He'll be good doing any strange pairing they find for him, because the guy is just flat versatile - the years as a songwriter for hire just make someone that way. "When the Stars Come Out" is produced country and Stapleton's voice makes it easy to hear country in it, but if you look at the construction and lyrics, it could easily be made into a pop record. It sounds so different than most of the rest of the album, but also fits in so well. I'm not sure it's the best track, but it might be my favorite, just because it shows how much more Stapleton is capable of - and it seems effortless.

I'm not sure Traveller is good enough to win the Grammy in a year like this, with such a stacked field. In other years, he might be a frontrunner. I know I've said this at least twice already, but it's a shame there aren't straight rock stations on the radio anymore, or Stapleton would definitely be getting steady play outside the country niche. Of course, I do have to throw that niche some love, since Stapleton isn't at all looking to break out - songs like "Whiskey and You" and "More of You" are nothing but a fantastic country track.

I haven't officially reviewed Sound and Color yet, but I suspect Alabama Shakes and Kendrick Lamar will be fighting for my vote in this category, so I've spent some time trying to figure out if Traveller or T-Swift is #3. On the one hand, as perfect a pop album as 1989 is, it feels like getting someone to make and then getting people to discover an album as unique and personal as Traveller might be more difficult. You can always find Swedish producers to punch up your pop sounds, but you don't always find a talent like Stapleton. That feels like a slight for the massive talent that is Taylor Swift. In any event, the very fact that it's a discussion in 2016 over which is better says a lot for just how good Chris Stapleton's Traveller really is.

No comments: