Chris Stapleton's 'Traveller': A look back at the game-changing album - Tennessean
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Chris Stapleton's 'Traveller': A look back at the game-changing album - Tennessean

A decade ago, Chris Stapleton took a road trip that forever changed country music.
It may be hard to imagine now, but in the summer 2013 his debut solo single stalled at country radio. Weeks later, his dad, a Kentucky coal miner who bought the guitar Stapleton learned to strum on, died.
He needed to clear his head.
That December, his wife-bandmate Morgane Stapleton plotted a cross-country trek from Phoenix to Nashville in a 1979 Jeep Cherokee. Though rainstorms, winter chills and one faulty alternator, the couple embraced 1,600 miles of open-road catharsis.
As the sun peeked out from behind a New Mexico horizon one morning, a few words creeped into Stapleton’s head.
“I’m just a traveller on this earth, sure as my heart’s behind the pocket of my shirt,” he whispered into his phone. “I’ll just keep rolling till I’m in the dirt.”
Nearly a decade later, the words Stapleton unearthed in New Mexico anchor the title track to an album that barnstormed country music — “Traveller.” On that trip, he ignited a creative spark that burned bright in Stapleton’s return-to-roots songwriting and unfiltered album-making. And like a sunrise after night’s darkest moments, listeners embraced Stapleton’s road-traveled wisdom with the ambition of a day’s first light.
Record-breaking and award-winning, the album set a tone commercially and creatively for modern Music Row storytellers to follow. As for life-changing award show performances and career-defining sales certifications? That was never the goal. He and his collaborators just wanted to make good music.
“It just felt so natural,” said Grammy Award-winning “Traveller” producer Dave Cobb. “Everything about working with him, it was like hanging with lifelong friends and good buddies. Cuttin’ up and laughing and really just having a blast. Maybe it would sell 20,000 records and everybody would be happy.
“I definitely didn’t expect it to do what it did, by any means.”
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When “Traveller” sessions started in 2014, a different brand of country music dominated mainstream Music Row. Songs that leaned heavily into replicated rural stories told with snap tracks, pop production and arena rock influence paraded up and down charts.
But not Stapleton. A tenured bluegrass player raised on outlaw country, Tom Petty and R&B records, he channeled Southern rock grit and roots storytelling to carve a reality in his songs that cut through industry illusions - eventually.
First, he needed to cut the album.
Stapleton — a former singer for bluegrass band the SteelDrivers and tenured Nashville songwriter with Luke Bryan and Jake Owen credits under his belt — knew Cobb through chance meetings; he enlisted the Georgia native to produce “Traveller” after hearing Sturgill Simpson’s 2014 standout “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.”
They retreated to Nashville’s once-endangered RCA Studio A for freewheelin’ live sessions fueled by takeout and whiskey.
No mutli-layered vocal overdubs or over-polished post-production. Listeners hear what Stapleton and his band cut on the floor during those days inside Studio A or outside the Castle Recording Studios in Franklin, where they relocated for a day mid-album. A handful of what became signature Stapleton cuts — “Traveller,” “Fire Away” and “Parachute,” among others — were born in these sessions.
“Humans playing together, there wasn’t any trickery or behind-the-scenes magic,” Cobb said. “It was humans playing in a room.”
And one of the best-selling country songs of this century was born out of a mid-session jam. Each time Stapleton stepped into the room with his band, engineer Vance Powell hit record. After all, he never knew what could happen.
“I built a session called ‘jams’ that was just them jamming,” said Powell, who’s cut albums with Jack White and Phish. “I came in and they were nerd-ing around a little bit, had just started playing. I hit record. Dave came in, and they had played through it once. He was like, ‘What are you guys doing?” [Someone said], ‘Oh we’re doing that Dean Dillon song ‘Tennessee Whiskey.’ We do our own thing.'”
Cobb sat down and they run through it a few more times, Powell said. In the final take, listeners who blast the guitar solo can hear Stapleton laugh in the background.
With nearly 600 million Spotify streams, “Tennessee Whiskey” remains the most popular song in Stapleton’s catalog. The song reached diamond-selling certification in late 2021, the highest honor for record sales in American music. It received its 13th platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America in September, signifying 13 million units consumed.
As Cobb predicted at the time, “Traveller” opened with modest sales. It spent a few weeks on the chart before fading against a tide of summer releases.
But someone paid attention, because waves of award nominations began rolling in. At the annual CMA Awards set for that fall in Nashville, Stapleton earned nods in New Artist of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year.
“You look at it now, you don’t remember that it was a surprise - all the nominations,” said Robert Deaton, longtime CMA Awards executive producer. “Nobody knew that was going to happen.”
Show night arrived with Stapleton set to perform and — hopefully — hear his name called in a category or two. He enlisted pop star buddy Justin Timberlake to team the latter’s song “Drink You Away” with a rendition of “Tennessee Whiskey.”
As for the band? “All of us were scared out of our minds,” said Cobb, who joined Stapleton on stage that night. “I remember we all got new boots. That was our costume. We were gonna wear black and get new boots.”
Timberlake and Stapleton took center stage with a floodlight backdrop and cohort of electric backing musicians. Morgane Stapleton stood to her husband’s left, ready to sing harmony vocals. Behind her, Cobb played acoustic guitar — an unmatched view to an overflowing crowd of peers and friends.
After a few notes, fear melted into a magic that only music can provide.
“The audience is other country stars and they all start standing up,” Cobb said. “You can just see the love in in the room, in every single person. From Keith Urban to Miranda [Lambert], whoever was in the audience, they were just going, ‘That’s our Chris Stapleton.'” … It was a beautiful experience.”
Despite what the time-tested adage says, artists can’t actually “tear the house down” during a fiery performance, of course. But Stapleton and Timberlake came about as close as one can get to playing a song that blows the roof off an arena. In his decade-and-a-half with the show, Deaton said he’s never seen anything like it.
Oh … and he won all three awards.
“To this day, people will say that’s their favorite award show performance of all-time,” Deaton said.
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America woke up the next morning with a new favorite country singer.
The album saw a 6,000% sales increase after Stapleton performed with Timberlake, propelling “Traveller” to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album sales chart, according to Luminate, a music data company formerly known as MRC Data and Nielsen-Soundscan.
“All of Nashville already loved him,” Deaton said. “Then the world loved him.”
And, yes, Cobb kept the outfit.
“Every time we play an awards show, I wear those boots” Cobb said, “I have the shirt from that night. I call it my ‘lucky shirt.’ I refuse to change it. Chris gets a giggle out of it. It’s about to fall apart. … [but] I refuse to go to an award show without that shirt.”
Rewind to six months before Stapleton stepped on stage at the CMA Awards.
Inside a shoulder-to-shoulder Cannery Ballroom for one of two back-to-back “Traveller” releases shows, Powell saw how quickly Stapleton’s songs could spread. Despite minimal radio support at the time, a fire began smoldering among dedicated listeners when “Traveller” hit record store shelves and streaming services.
“We’re like 20 feet from the door in, we’re way in the back,” Powell said about that night at the release show. “He starts ‘Traveller.’ When he hits tht first line, the guy next to me’s singing it. And the guy behind’s me singing it. The crowd’s singing ‘Traveller.’ It’s been out four days. That doesn’t happen in Nashville. Nobody gives a s***.”
Like the ’79 Jeep Stapleton took on his cross-country trip, the album just needed a little gasoline.
“We’re like 20 feet from the door in, we’re way in the back,” Powell said about that night at the release show. “He starts ‘Traveller.’ When he hits tht first line, the guy next to me’s singing it. And the guy behind’s me singing it. The crowd’s singing ‘Traveller.’ It’s been out four days. That doesn’t happen in Nashville. Nobody gives a s***.”
“Traveller” hasn’t left the Billboard 200 since his CMA Awards performance, charting for more than 350 consecutive weeks as of August 2022, per Luminate. As of August, the album accounted for nearly 1% of all U.S. country music streaming in 2022. Behind “Traveller” and his growing catalog of country hits, the Kentucky singer-songwriter stands next to Bruno Mars and Coldplay as one of the 50 most-streamed artists on the planet.
The album continued to bring home trophies, as well. During its release cycle, “Traveller” earned nods at the Grammy Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards and Billboard Music Awards, among others.
Stapelton continues to work with Cobb and Powell on albums, including 2020 LP “Starting Over.” Like “Traveller” before it, the album blurs lines between country, roots and Southern rock in a way only Stapleton can. Earlier this year, “Starting Over” helped Stapleton bring home a trio of Grammy Awards, bringing his career total to eight.
“When he made Traveller, I don’t think he went in there to take over the world,” Cobb said. “I think he went in there and made the record he wanted to make. The most honest record he could possibly make. Made the record he would enjoy listening to and he would be proud of.”
And “Traveller” didn’t just change country music. For some, it changed everything.
“The thing that Chris did, in my opinion, is bigger than Nashville,” Powell said. “Chris made a record - and was allowed to make a record. ‘Traveller’ made the industry, for a minute, think, ‘Wow. We can make art again.'”
Welcome to Liner notes, a new Tennessean series highlighting some of the ground-shaking albums to be released from Nashville this century (so far). From commercial powerhouses to critical mainstays, we’ll go behind the scenes each month with an album that helped shape today’s Nashville.
Want to see an album you love covered in an upcoming Liner Notes story? Email [email protected] with suggestions.