Sitting on his bus backstage at Bonnaroo, Chris Stapleton’s eyes go wide when he spies a visitor wearing a vintage Highwaymen T-shirt. “Wow, that’s a real one,” he exclaims.
The same can be said of Stapleton, who stands out for his musical authenticity in a format dominated by cookie-cutter bros relying on Auto-Tune and backing tracks.
Despite Tennessee temperatures hovering near 100, the bearlike Stapleton appears fresh and rested. In April, the Paintsville, Kentucky, native was forced to postpone a gig after losing his voice. “I had to cancel a show because of playing stuff like this, where there is dust in the air,” he says, gesturing outside. “We played Coachella and the second weekend took me down.”
Since then, he’s especially mindful of protecting his husky pipes, which he puts to use at live shows distinguished by a palpable sense of unpredictability: on any given night, he can play the entirety of his Grammy-winning debut Traveller, songs he’s written for radio-country stars like Luke Bryan or covers by the Temptations and Tom Petty. The week that Prince died, Stapleton delivered a compelling “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Above all else, he’s adamant about actually performing live, even on TV — which can be a headache for the producers of country’s myriad awards shows. “They’re uncomfortable, but they learned that’s what I like, or I won’t do it, and that’s fine,” Stapleton says. “I’m not going to ask musicians to sit there and pretend to play. It feels insulting to the musicians to me.”
Especially when those musicians are Nashville greats. Willie Nelson’s harmonica sideman Mickey Raphael, Waylon Jennings’ steel player Robby Turner and Stapleton’s producer Dave Cobb all rotate in and out of the main group, made up of bassist J.T. Cure, drummer Derek Mixon and Stapleton’s wife, vocalist Morgane. Recently, the core four have been carving out time before shows to jam, with Mixon keeping the beat on an overturned cup. “The dream would be to have a full-on jam room,” Stapleton says, “but sometimes you’re coming in hot and just have to throw and go.”
With the majority of today’s elaborately produced Nashville tours programmed by computer, both artist and audience can be robbed of such spontaneity.
“I like more of the club mentality, where we’re playing and if we feel like we want to play a cover, we’ll switch to that,” he says. “If you’re working with tracks and something goes wrong, a lot of times people will never know, because you’re pressing a button and there’s a computer running.”
Onstage at Bonnaroo, Stapleton is freewheeling, dropping in a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” early in the set. Later, he cedes the spotlight to Morgane for “You Are My Sunshine.”
He promises he and the band (for whom he’s currently seeking a name) will never go through the motions onstage.
“I like working without a net,” Stapleton says. “It’ll probably bite me in the ass at some point, but they’ll know it was live, so that’s fine with me.”