“You know, we met Willie Nelson earlier, and she was wearing that T-shirt!”
Most people would be mortified to realize they’re sporting the face of the person they’re meeting across their front, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Morgane Stapleton. At the packed-as-hell May 5 Mercury Lounge show celebrating the release of husband Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, his devastatingly good solo debut, Morgane — who lends her voice to Traveller‘s ballads, confessions, and numerous tributes to brown liquor — was still rocking Nelson’s image by the time she hit the stage. The choice to do so was kind of perfect for the occasion, given Stapleton’s undeniable twang and the timeless, effortless storytelling that makes him a deserving addition to the Outlaw Country club. (It didn’t hurt that she was standing beside Mickey Raphael, the adept harmonica player from Nelson’s band, whom Stapleton has tapped for his live shows.)
While Stapleton is an overnight sensation to the uninitiated, the singer-songwriter has long since established himself as a premier talent in Nashville, as both a performer with the SteelDrivers (Adele’s a big fan) and a songwriter who has penned hits for Tim McGraw, Darius Rucker, Kenny Chesney, and other pop-country crooners. With Traveller, he’s set to be a crossover success. If the line trailing down Houston from the door of the Mercury Lounge was any indication, it seems that Stapleton’s fashionably late to his own big break.
The eye-roll-inducing tendency to play Country Music Bingo with any given artist who proudly hails from the South is tough to avoid when someone like Stapleton takes the stage, all grizzled beard, fancy cowboy hat (complete with gorgeous turquoise medallion), and syrupy accent. Yes, there’s mention of a tractor and Jesus and enough whiskey to flood the Cumberland River three times over, and this was reflected in the sly banter he’d deliver in between cuts. (“Tennessee Whiskey” and “Whiskey & You” were separated only by songs that mentioned more whiskey, and he poked fun at himself so readily it was the gruffest kind of charming.)
Halfway through his set, someone from the crowd belted out a request for “Fire Away,” and Stapleton wasted no time in correcting the offender when he pointed out that, yeah, they’d played that already. He was gracious about it, but still: Stapleton is direct on record and onstage, the possessor of a seeming allergy to bullshit, and his music is the better for it, and that aim he’s taking in “Fire Away” is just as on-point.
“Whiskey & You” first made the rounds as a single sung by McGraw for 2007’s Let It Go, but Stapleton included his own cut of his composition on Traveller — and thank Christ he did, ’cause McGraw barely scratches the surface of the multitudes Stapleton laid to tape. The intensity of the desperate tale of a man nursing a hangover and heartbreak in tandem is brutally sincere, having stopped the packed and slurring room from swaying or talking over the music for a second, and it’s moments like these where Stapleton shines as a steadfast voice who’s long overdue for his turn in the spotlight.
The harmonies on Traveller are astounding in studio, but the Stapletons live are something else entirely. It feels borderline voyeuristic to take in the pair singing together — their eyes brimming on the high notes, in some moments — but they’re generous in that they share, before a rapt audience, both their love for each other and the music they’re able to make to articulate it.
Given the good omens — in the form of that Willie tee and the line out the door before he arrived at the Mercury Lounge — Stapleton would appear ready to be put to work on the festival circuit, tapped for massive, arena-filling country tours, and slingshot to the top of every Best Of list by the close of 2015, much like 2014’s dark horse along similar genre lines, Sturgill Simpson. Justin Timberlake told us so back in December, but it’s great to see the gospel he preaches come to pass in the form of such a beautiful record and rising star of country talent. We’ll definitely raise a glass of Tennessee’s finest to that.
REAL music fans already know. So, mainstream:
Remember that name…
— Justin Timberlake (@jtimberlake) December 11, 2014