It’s almost unfair to compare Chris Stapleton to other rodeo entertainers, this or any other year.
Unfair, because it’s like he’s playing with a different deck of cards than anybody else in the game. Almost, because he drew an announced 75,014 people March 16 (with all of three other people onstage with him) .
That’s four fewer people the February 27 attendance for Garth Brooks on February 27, for those keeping score at home.
It was a great night for guitars and people who love songs about whiskey. The most significant visual effect was the amusing green light bathing NRG Stadium during “Dem Stems.” For all the good that super high-tech new rodeo stage did them, Stapleton and his bandmates might as well have been someplace like The Big Easy. They even stuck a few red plastic cups on their amps.
But his songs are so sturdy and robust, full of slashing riffs and slow-cooked grooves, they had no trouble filling the stadium at all. Fans sang along lustily during “Nobody to Blame,” “Broken Halos,” and “Tennessee Whiskey.”
The set opened with a hard-rocking “Midnight Train to Memphis” — shout-out to all you other Steeldrivers fans out there — before downshifting into a glowering Waylon tempo for “Dem Stems” and “Hard Livin’,” during which Stapleton winked at all the Johnny Cash fans with “I could never walk the line.”
The whole band was dressed in black, by the way.
Stapleton may look like an outlaw, but he’s really a bluesman at heart. That may sound like a funny thing to say about the person who wrote a song called “Outlaw State of Mind,” which the band stretched into a flinty, extended jam session. But he could not be less interested in jacked-up tailgates, mud tires or cutoff jeans, and his music is so much better for it.
Instead, the people in Stapleton’s songs are feeling their age, wracked with regrets, or singing from a jail cell. Songs like “Might as Well Get Stoned” and “Fire Away” bubble up from the same nearly forgotten musical swamp as Tony Joe White or some of Skynyrd’s best songs — the simmering stuff like “Tuesday’s Gone” or “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.”
The other real rocker, the garage-y “Second One to Know,” was practically a low-key ZZ Top tribute. Stapleton can really shred when he wants to, but you’d probably never hear that from him.
Maybe his real superpower is his humility — he really comes off like all he wants to do is show up and play hard. He’s even funny as hell: his sung band introductions before “Tennessee Whiskey” drew big laughs when he revealed bassist J.T. Cure has two cats at home (“who miss him”), and that drummer Derek Mixon is “not as sensitive as J.T.”
Stapleton also had some kind words for everyone down here still coping with our recent flooding-related tribulations. Pair that with some of the most potent Southern songwriting in a generation or two and it’s no wonder he’s become indescribably popular.
Still wish his wife had been there singing with him this time, though.