Chris Stapleton Dives Into His Archives For 'From A Room: Volume 2'

Dec 1, 2017
Originally published on December 1, 2017 3:11 pm

For the longest time, people in Nashville knew Chris Stapleton as a songwriter who wrote hits for some of the biggest names in country music: Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Dierks Bentley and more.

Then, in May 2015, Traveller, Stapleton's debut solo album, was released and everything changed.

The record was received with critical acclaim, earned him two 2016 Grammys in the categories of best country solo performance and best country album and was nominated for album of the year. (Dave Cobb, Stapleton's producer, also got a nod for non-classical producer of the year.) It also swept that year's Country Music Association Awards, but the most notable moment from that night was Stapleton's live performance of "Tennessee Whiskey" and "Drink Me Away" with Justin Timberlake and Morgane, Stapleton's wife, that brought down the house and effectively shot Stapleton into the mainstream.

Now, he has a new album called From A Room: Volume 2, available Dec. 1. Stapleton spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about the litmus test he has for old songs he has written and why his music is connecting with audiences now. Hear the full interview at the audio link and read on for the highlights.


Interview Highlights

On including songs that were written years ago on the album

I think anything you pull back out of the archives you're gonna hear in a different way than the day you write it. It's real easy to write a song in a day and think that you knocked it out of the park. It's a whole different thing to sit down a decade later and listen to that song that you wrote on that day objectively. I prefer the ones that have been around for 10 years and I can still listen to them and go, "I still like to sing this. I still like to hear this." And I think if it passes that litmus test, then I think it's pretty safe to say that the song's at least OK.

On re-recording "Midnight Train to Memphis," an old SteelDrivers song

It was my old bluegrass band I used to be in. We recorded that song in that band, but I've always continued to play that song even when I'm not in that band, so it got time to be recorded again like, "Listen, I still play this song every night. We should record it."

One's got a banjo on it, and the other one's got a little Bo Diddley drums underneath it. It's still the same song at its core, it's just a song I've always loved. I love to play it live, it always goes over live. It was originally written more in my head like we're doing it now, than what we did back with the SteelDrivers. Richard Bailey is a master of being able to play a banjo on anything, so he was able to take that song and turn it to what it was with the SteelDrivers.

On why he thinks his music is connecting with audiences right now

I can't really speak to why people like what we do. Hopefully, they know what we do is authentically us, and that goes over no matter what kind of music you're playing. People will kind of hear that and connect with that in ways they wouldn't if you were trying to be something that you think might be popular; I think that's always a mistake in music, maybe even in life. Do something 'cause it's in your heart, do something 'cause it's what you're supposed to be doing.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Some big touring musicians build their careers slowly over years. For Chris Stapleton, everything changed on one night. People in Nashville already knew him as a songwriter who wrote hits for some of the biggest names in country music. And then in 2015, his debut solo album swept the Country Music Awards. And he brought down the house performing this live duet with Justin Timberlake.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRINK YOU AWAY")

CHRIS STAPLETON: (Singing) I can't drink you. I can't drink you away, away.

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Oh, I can't drink you. I can't - let me hear you say it. I can't drink...

MCEVERS: Now Chris Stapleton has a new album. Our co-host Ari Shapiro talked to him.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The album is called "From A Room: Volume 2." A Room is a specific place where Stapleton and other country artists recorded and wrote legendary songs going back decades.

STAPLETON: Dolly Parton recordings, Waylon Jennings, Elvis, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed. When you walk in there, you can feel all that. And so to get to record in there is always a treat.

SHAPIRO: Almost everything on this album comes from Stapleton's back catalog, which is huge. He's written literally hundreds of songs over the years. I asked him whether they come easily.

STAPLETON: To me, if I'm not done with something in two or three hours, I'm probably not going to work too hard on it because I don't think it should be that hard. If an idea and a song's really good, I think they will kind of write themselves. And the path is pretty clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS STAPLETON SONG, "A SIMPLE SONG")

STAPLETON: You know, there's a song called "A Simple Song" on here that really just came out of a conversation. I actually wrote it with my father-in-law. That song's basically a trading off of different life experiences or things that were going on at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SIMPLE SONG")

CHRIS STAPLETON AND MORGANE STAPLETON: (Singing) Trying to quit these cigarettes - I can't seem to kick them yet.

SHAPIRO: Which one of you is trying to quit smoking?

STAPLETON: He quit smoking years ago, but he claims to still dream about them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SIMPLE SONG")

C. STAPLETON AND M. STAPLETON: (Singing) But I love my life. Man, it's something to see. It's kids and the dogs and you and me. It's the way it's all right. When everything goes wrong, it's the sound of a slow, simple song.

SHAPIRO: Some of the tracks on this album are songs that you wrote years ago. Was there anything that you pulled back out of the archives and heard in a different way than when you first wrote them?

STAPLETON: I think anything you pull back out of the archives you're going to hear in a different way than the day you write it. I mean, it's real easy to write a song in a day and think that you knocked it out of the park. It's a whole different thing to sit down a decade later and listen to that song that you wrote on that day objectively. I prefer the ones that have been around for 10 years. And I can still listen to them and go, I still like to sing this; I still like to hear this. And I think if it passes that litmus test, then I think it's pretty safe to say the song's at least OK.

SHAPIRO: Give us an example from the CD.

STAPLETON: I'll give you an example. I - "Midnight Train To Memphis" on this record - I like so much I've recorded it twice. I...

(LAUGHTER)

STAPLETON: I recorded it once with The SteelDrivers and...

SHAPIRO: The SteelDrivers was your old band.

STAPLETON: It was an old bluegrass band I used to be in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO MEMPHIS")

THE STEELDRIVERS: (Singing) Well, judge looked down, gave me 40 days instead of the fine that I could not pay.

STAPLETON: We recorded that song in that band. But I've always continued to play that song even when I'm not in that band. And so it got time to, you know, be recording again. I was like, listen; I still play this song every night. We should record it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO MEMPHIS")

THE STEELDRIVERS: (Singing) Forty days of shotguns and barbed-wire fences.

SHAPIRO: About a decade later, you've now rerecorded it. Let's listen to how you did this differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO MEMPHIS")

STAPLETON: (Singing) Forty nights to sit and listen to the midnight train to Memphis.

SHAPIRO: How would you describe the difference between those two versions?

STAPLETON: You know, one's got a banjo on it, and the other one's got a little Bo Diddley, drums underneath it.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

STAPLETON: You know, so it's still the same song at its core. It's just a song I've always loved. And I love to play it live. It always goes over live. And it was originally written more in my head like we're doing it now than what we did back with The SteelDrivers. But Richard Bailey's a master of being able to play a banjo on anything. (Laughter) So he was able to take that song and turn it into what it was with The SteelDrivers.

SHAPIRO: Another key part of your musical process, your life, your touring is your wife, Morgane Stapleton. And Rolling Stone called you the greatest unsung duo in modern country. I'm not sure if unsung is still accurate. But tell us about her role on this album.

STAPLETON: Well, she's always instrumental in everything that we do. And she's the person that puts together the master list of songs because she probably knows my catalog better than anybody on the planet, better than I do.

SHAPIRO: She sings harmonies on a lot of these tracks.

STAPLETON: Yeah, no, she's always singing harmony. She's playing tambourine on the bulk of the percussion that you hear on here. That's her.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to one of the tracks where Morgane's harmonies come across really beautifully.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MILLIONAIRE")

C. STAPLETON AND M. STAPLETON: (Singing) They say love is more precious than gold. It can't be bought, and it can't be sold. I got love enough to spare. That makes me a millionaire.

SHAPIRO: And this is actually a cover - right? - by Kevin Welch.

STAPLETON: It is. It's - yeah, it's - it's one of my favorite Kevin Welch songs. And I've sung this song to myself in a room so many times that I always knew I would probably somewhere down the line be playing it in front of people. Hopefully you can hear how much I love it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MILLIONAIRE")

C. STAPLETON AND M. STAPLETON: (Singing) She's my treasure, so very rare. She's made me a millionaire.

SHAPIRO: Your music is a brand of country that we haven't heard much on country music stations for a while. Generally the radio is more pop than honky-tonk. Some people call it bro country. So why do you think your style is connecting with audiences right now?

STAPLETON: You know, I can't really speak to why (laughter) people like what we do. Hopefully they know that it's - what we do is authentically us, and that goes over no matter what kind of music you play in. Or you know, people will kind of hear that and connect with that in ways that they wouldn't if you were trying to be something that you think might be popular, you know? I think that's always a mistake in music, maybe even in life. Do something 'cause it's in your heart, and do something 'cause it's what you're supposed to be doing.

SHAPIRO: You've written for so many different musicians, not only country music artists - Adele and other pop stars. To you, was it always a given that you would make country music?

STAPLETON: Well, I - you know, I've been in bluegrass bands. I've been in rock bands. And I've always been a touring musician in one capacity or another. I am from the country. I'm from east Kentucky. I'm - I am country. I - you can't take that out of me. So if you want to say that that makes it - what I do country music, then absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD LIVIN'")

C. STAPLETON AND M. STAPLETON: (Singing) Never thought it would happen to me. But this hard living ain't as easy as it used to be. I looked a...

SHAPIRO: Chris Stapleton - the new album is called "From A Room: Volume 2." It's been great talking to you. Thanks so much.

STAPLETON: Yes, Sir. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD LIVIN'")

STAPLETON: (Singing) No, I could never walk the line.

C. STAPLETON AND M. STAPLETON: (Singing) Never thought it would happen to me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.