When country singer Chris Stapleton returned to Nashville's famed Studio A last winter to record his follow-up to 2015's critically acclaimed Traveller, he brought with him the same producer and the same players. The circumstances, however, couldn't have been more different.
Two years earlier, the burly, bearded son of an Appalachian coal miner recorded his debut album under the radar, with measured expectations. This time around, after Stapleton's meteoric rise, he faced the pressures that come with a hurricane of success, including keen interest from country music's power players — and even the genre's royalty.
"We got the luxury of making the last record in this vacuum where no one could interfere," he said. "This time, one day I walked in and Dolly Parton sent me a song. Things like that are heavy. That’s the highest compliment you can get."
Stapleton blocked out the added scrutiny and worked to distill his new music down to its core, just as he did on Traveller. Together with the other musicians and producer Dave Cobb, he set out "to make the best music that we can," he said. "As far as I can tell, we did pretty good at it."
From A Room: Volume 1 is available now. Named for the historic RCA Studio A, the album is the first release of a two-volume set. Volume 1 contains eight songs co-written by Stapleton and a cover of Willie Nelson’s Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning. Volume 2 will be out later this year.
For material, Stapleton leaned on songs from his back catalog. He penned half of the originals with former SteelDrivers bandmate Mike Henderson. Either Way, the album's lead single, Stapleton wrote with Tim James and Kendall Marvel in 2006. Previously recorded by Lee Ann Womack, the song’s lyrics include: "Baby you can go or you can stay / I won't love you either way." Stapleton’s version is only a guitar and a vocal.
When Stapleton recorded Traveller, he asked his record label if he could simply make an album, release it and go play it live without worrying about its commercial viability. Stapleton would have considered 50,000 copies sold a “huge victory.” He sold 2 million.
Stapleton’s breakout moment came during a performance with Justin Timberlake during the 2015 Country Music Association Awards. Until then, he was a critical darling who had made a few television appearances but had yet to cross over into mainstream recognition. But Stapleton’s textured drawl and mountain man persona paired with Timberlake’s pop sensibilities on a mashup of Tennessee Whiskey and Drink You Away was a television moment that catapulted the eastern Kentucky native to the center of attention. In the next week, Traveller immediately sold more than 50,000 albums — more than half as many as he’d sold in the previous six months.
“It would be foolish not to mark that moment as a definite switch-flipper for us,” Stapleton said. “All of a sudden, we’re doing things we’d never done before and growing at rates that we weren’t used to. I looked at music careers like you never really know what’s gonna (work), but then the stars lined up, everything clicked and you get to ride some kind of strange reality, some alternate universe.”
An unexpected bonus of Stapleton's success is the ability to give back in a variety of ways, including benefit concerts and earmarking a percentage of his ticket sales for charity. Until he started selling albums, Stapleton couldn’t entertain the notion because he was still trying to figure out how to pay his bills as a musician. During his childhood, the singer lived in a nice house but was surrounded by poverty.
“I grew up less than a mile from folks that lived in shacks with dirt floors,” he said. “I certainly know that there are needs in this country. Not too far from your house, if you look around, people need to be helped. … Now (I) have some slight capacity to do something.”