Just a couple of days ago, the Country Music Association named Chris Stapleton as its male vocalist of the year.
Saturday night at a jam-packed Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, Stapleton made the case that they probably should have thrown in another trophy, for his guitar playing.
As a vocalist, Stapleton is in the Willie Nelson/Leon Russell school, high and nasally (but with a good bit of power on call when he needs it). As a guitar player, he was all over the place, playing a bit of rockabilly, a touch of country and a whole bunch of Texas blues. And you have to admire his nerve — most country stars will go on stage with eight, 10 or more musicians behind them; Saturday night, it was Stapleton, a bass player and a drummer. No fiddles, no pedal steel, no keyboards or backup singers; no place to hide.
If you’re going to walk onstage in front of 12,000 or so fans as a power trio, the players had better be good. Fortunately, they are. Drummer Derek Mixon and bass player J. T. Cure, who have played with Stapleton for years, were more than up to the chore, with Cure especially pushing the songs and giving Stapleton room to work. Stapleton was a revelation on guitar, playing soft and delicate, then mean and roaring. He’s frequently more like Stevie Ray Vaughan than, say, Chet Atkins, with slow-burning blues you wouldn’t expect from a country artist.
And that’s the thing. Stapleton is on a country label. He works out of Nashville. The CMA just said his “From a Room: Volume 1” is the best country album of the year. But he’s not what you think of when you think of modern country (even though he’s written hits for Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan). He sounds more like he grew up listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival than George Jones. He did cover a David Allan Coe song, but he also covered Tom Petty and did a brief, solo take on “Freebird.”
He’s also a pretty remarkable songwriter — he sold out the arena on the strength of just two albums (a third, “From a Room: Volume 2” comes out Dec. 1). “The Devil Named Music,” “Traveller,” “Broken Halos,” “Whiskey and You,” “Death Row” and “Second One to Know” are as good as anything coming out of Nashville today.
It also took a lot of nerve to book Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives as the opening act. That’s an act that could blow a lot of headliners off the stage, with a throwback rockabilly sound and four tremendous musicians, dressed in rhinestones and fringe and Stuart sporting a silver mullet that may be the best haircut in the music business. They’re coming back to the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall in January, where they could be quite something in that much smaller room.