the traveller returns
Chris Stapleton's fifth RodeoHouston ride shreds with Tennessee-whiskey-drenched soul
The dreariest, rainiest day at RodeoHouston this season (Thursday, March 16) cosmically coincided with Chris Stapleton's return to the neon cow and pony show. Maybe five songs in his growing discography match a sunny day, with the rest better suited for sepia-toned confrontations on prairies or a chilly kitchen table divorce request.
One of the biggest-selling country acts in recent history, Stapleton's pop culture seemingly knows no bounds of ubiquity. For the coming decades, generations will talk about hearing Stapleton throughout their lives. Sunday mornings spent fending for yourself in the kitchen for breakfast while Mom and Dad are blaring "Tennessee Whiskey" from the bedroom. The single mom in the school pick-up line wearing dark shades, playing "Broken Halos" until Spotify cries uncle. The emo cowpoke feeding the internet jukebox repeated plays of "Fire Away" at Buffalo Wild Wings at lunchtime. Making an NFL head coach projectile cry during his rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl.
Since his widescreen LP debut in 2015 with Traveller, Stapleton has done nearly everything in the industry besides winning a Tony or an Oscar. It wouldn't be surprising if somewhere under all that dirty blonde beard and Stetson is a Broadway show about a cattle rustler with a heart of fool's gold or a dirgy film score to end all film scores.
By the way, Traveller currently sits at No. 56 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, a mere eight years since the album's release. That kind of longevity is usually reserved for the likes of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (#133) and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours (#29). His last album, 2020's Starting Over, is down at #79.
Consistently stunning in his songwriting and studio pairings, Stapleton is in his myth-making era, the soundtrack for heartbreaking or babymaking, splitting the difference between Waylon Jennings and Otis Redding.
He's long crossed that imaginary, arbitrary pop threshold that most country artists find themselves in and went and made songcraft appreciated again. He paved the way for the likes of Zach Bryan and Maggie Rogers to top charts with ragged hearts and found time to collaborate with Justin Timberlake and Joy Oladokun.
Stapleton's big-time intimacy suits RodeoHouston like a well-worn pair of ropers and for his fifth performance since debuting at NRG Stadium in 2017. Opening with "Parachute," Stapleton and his four-piece band – with the legendary Paul Franklin – turned the stadium into the world's most expensive backyard ice house.
He always seems to channel ZZ Top whenever he enters Harris County, and on Thursday night, he was finding ways to interweave Billy Gibbons licks into nearly every song. There was a wink in "Second One To Know," a spiritual callback in "Arkansas," and his beard is pretty ZZ as it gets.
Eight years since its album debut, "Nobody To Blame" is the sound of Stapleton in a lab distilling the history of outlaw country into four minutes, showcasing his guitarwork as it chugs along.
So many people complain about rodeo shows for one nitpicky reason or another when many times, these are the first musical experiences that most kids even undergo. These are the kind of rodeo shows that inspire a kid to tug at their parents' sleeve during the show and ask for a guitar and set someone on a musical journey.
This was my fifth Stapleton show, and even I am pondering hitting up a pawn shop this weekend for a guitar.
"Fire Away" saw the crowd of 72,634 match Stapleton's glow from the stage with the lights from their phones, creating a bed of twinkling cellular stars in the stadium, so much so that even Stapleton seemed overcome by it.
Stapleton and company savored every sip of set closer "Tennessee Whiskey" as the Ford fleet arrived to whisk them off into the night. RodeoHouston books actual musical acts, and Thursday night was a reminder of how magic one of these communal experiences can be.
Second One To Know
You Should Probably Leave
Nobody To Blame
Worry B Gone (Guy Clark cover)