NEW YORK CITY — Just as the success of his 2015 debut album, Traveller, signaled an unlikely renaissance of authenticity in country, Chris Stapleton’s show at Forest Hills Stadium on Saturday (July 23) provided further proof that the 15-years-in-the-making “overnight sensation” can kiss his underdog days goodbye.
The historic, 14,000-capacity venue, the original home to the U.S. Open, has hosted everyone from the Beatles to Frank Sinatra in its time. But on the evening in question, a Kentucky boy with only one album under his own name was the center of attention for the thousands who filled the stadium.
When Stapleton took the stage after kindred spirit Brandy Clark’s sharp opening set, even before he played a single note, it was clear he was sticking to the keeping-it-real approach that had already made him a Grammy winner and platinum-seller. His stripped-down setup found him backed only by a bassist and drummer, plus his wife Morgane Stapleton providing vocal harmonies. Stapleton left the heavy lifting on both vocals and guitar for himself and didn’t let that load falter for a moment.
The Waylon Jennings beat and dusty-road vibe of Stapleton’s ACM Award-winning “Nobody to Blame” showed off the singer’s soulful, commanding pipes and his knack for trenchant, bluesy guitar leads right from the get-go. He doubled down on the Southern rock swagger in his sound with “Midnight Train to Memphis,” a blues-baked stomp that goes back to his time with bluegrass mavericks the SteelDrivers. By the end of the slow-burning, swampy “Outlaw State of Mind,” Stapleton was really ratcheting up the raw, dirty guitar tones, even flirting with some feedback to end the tune.
While tracks from Traveller made up the bulk of the set, Stapleton didn’t eschew tunes from the decade and a half he spent as a songwriter for other artists before his solo debut. “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey” was never a single for Gary Allan, but it was one of the best tunes on his 2003 album, See If I Care, and it was fascinating to hear a funkier version of the outlaw anthem from its author, appropriately dedicated to the whiskey drinkers in the crowd.
Stapleton’s link to first-generation outlaw country was further limned by the discernible dash of Willie Nelson present in the acoustic waltz-time tune “More of You,” He looked back to his songwriter-for-hire days again with the heartache-heavy ballad “Either Way,” recorded by Lee Ann Womack on her 2008 album, Call Me Crazy.
Speaking of Willie influences, after unleashing a raw-throated howl on the good-time ode to the herb “Might As Well Get Stoned,” Stapleton seemingly couldn’t help commenting, “It smells like me and somebody out there have something to talk about.” One of the only Traveller tunes not composed by Stapleton turned up next, as he leaned into the dark, minor-key, Don Sampson-penned “Was It 26,” before underlining his debt to Waylon once more with a new song, “Hard Living.”
Stapleton’s wife Morgane took the lead on a slow, R&B-based version of the 1930s Jimmie Davis song “You Are My Sunshine,” transforming it into a sultry soul ballad much the way Ray Charles did with classic country tunes on his milestone 1962 record Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, though hubby’s blistering, bluesy guitar solo brought to mind Buddy Guy more than anything else.
Introducing his Top 20 hit “Traveller,” Stapleton gave the crowd a bit of its backstory, which apparently involved a drive through the desert in a ’79 Jeep Cherokee (sounds about right).
The way Stapleton dug into his Top 40 tune “Fire Away” underscored one of his greatest gifts as a vocalist (besides his barn-size voice) — he never over-sings. Though he’s capable of enormous intensity, he consistently doles it out tastefully and sparingly. “The Devil Named Music,” about an itinerant song man’s love/hate relationship with the road, led into “Tennessee Whiskey,” giving the crowd the biggest charge of the evening. Written by Dean Dillon and the late Linda Hargrove, the song had been a hit for George Jones in 1983, but Stapleton’s version brings a Van Morrison-meet-Sam Cooke soul feel to the tune, and his alternately gliding and burning vocals proved more than equal to the task.
After returning to the stage alone for an acoustic encore of the mournful, moving “Whiskey and You,” Stapleton was rejoined by the band for the smoldering blues tune that ends his album, “Sometimes I Cry,” coming on more like a reincarnated version of Chicago blues hero Otis Rush than anything out of Nashville. But for a set — and a sensibility — touching on everything from classic country and Southern rock to straight-up soul, that kind of eclecticism seemed to make plenty of sense.