Chris Stapleton Returns Home With Emotional Set at Nashville’s Ryman
Three songs into the start of Chris Stapleton‘s mini-residency at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Thursday night (Feb. 18), the standing sold-out crowd let him know how much they appreciate what he’s accomplished. The CMAs, the Grammys, the Traveller album — Stapleton has provided hope for a more diverse and satisfying country future by proving that raw talent can win. This was Nashville’s chance to shower the 37-year-old with applause, and they didn’t hold back.
Wife Morgane — rarely more than four feet to Stapleton’s left, as dependable and essential as June was for Johnny — beamed with pride as the hollering grew even louder. Her smile could be seen from the painted glass windows that line the back wall of country music’s most sacred venue. She brought her hands to her mouth and cried, as if she was reliving every moment of her husband’s journey to get here: the endless practice and touring, a father’s death, a road trip that changed his life, being rejected by radio … the CMAs, the performance with Justin Timberlake.
Stapleton — wearing his signature blond cowboy hat with the turquoise stone set in the middle, his face barely visible from beneath his graying chocolate beard — quietly tuned his guitar and prepared for the next song. It’s as if he’s not yet let the moment, the praise and the accolades sink in, and is instead relying on Morgane to do it for him.
He depends on her onstage, too. Early on Stapleton spent 90 percent of his time pushing words left across his microphone, rarely letting Morgane out of his field of vision. This zero-to-60 journey he’s been on has surely been overwhelming for a man popular in bluegrass circles and around Music City, but not really elsewhere prior to Nov. 4, 2015. His wife stands next to him, supporting, encouraging and taking it in for him. It’s beautiful to witness live. An album of duets is a must.
On this night fans heard plenty from Morgane, but less and less as the show progressed, until Stapleton stood alone for the encore, confidentially belting out “Whisky and You” over pin-drop silence. No one left early to beat traffic. Background chatter subsided. It was a moment the Mother Church of Country Music was built for.
Stapleton provided more of these moments. This audience came to its collective feet at the end of songs like “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” and “Might as Well Get Stoned.” It felt like a State of the Union speech at times, but Stapleton never indulged. Blues covers, two songs with his old band the SteelDrivers and a cover of Tom Petty‘s “Free Fallin'” with opening act Maren Morris were sprinkled between songs from Traveller. Through it all, his band (including producer Dave Cobb on guitar and Willie Nelson harmonica player Mickey Raphael) showed their talents.
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The audience responded most to the selections from Stapleton’s debut solo album, released last May. “The Devil Named Music” and “Tennessee Whiskey” came late. The set opened with “Nobody to Blame,” the title track and then “Fire Away,” a song that elicited an emotional response from the crowd. A late cover of “You Are My Sunshine” put a spotlight on Morgane. The two recorded this song for Cobb’s Southern Family album, and as of Friday (Feb. 19), it’s available at iTunes. Their version turns a song many think of as a nursery rhyme into a raw, gritty, twisted love song. Afterward, the crowd … well, you know.
“Whiskey and You” was a fitting end for a show that stripped away layer after layer. You’ll find dozens of videos of the encore on YouTube, and dozens more will come if he plays the same song at the end of Friday and Saturday night’s sold out shows at the Ryman. With a simple “Goodnight” and reminder to drive safe, Stapleton walked off stage, securely reminding 23-hundred people that flash and bright lights will never beat raw, unbridled talent.