The Oral History of Chris Stapleton’s ‘Traveller’
Stapleton, Dave Cobb, Vance Powell and others reveal the inside story on the Album Of The Year nominee
By Lisa Zhito
Chris Stapleton was a hero in country music circles long before Traveller topped critics’ best of 2015 lists and garnered the coveted GRAMMY nomination for Album Of The Year. As a songwriter, the Kentucky native quickly forged a successful career, writing hits for such artists as Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney and Darius Rucker, and everyone from Adele to George Strait has recorded his songs.
Stapleton developed a cult following of his own through stints with GRAMMY-nominated bluegrass band the SteelDrivers and Southern rock band the Jompson Brothers. But it was Traveller that catapulted Stapleton from Nashville’s best kept secret to superstar.
The intimate, often mournful collection has been called a throwback, reflecting a musical sincerity rarely seen in modern Nashville. The album was recorded almost entirely live at Nashville’s RCA Studio A, just as news that the historic space had been sold to developers — who planned to demolish the building — was rocking the music community.
“The space that you record in, the history of it, can really play a huge role in the music that you get out of a session,” says Stapleton. “Places have stuff in the walls, is the best way I can describe it. You gotta try to live up to that, even if you can’t.”
Following, Stapleton and other key players behind his acclaimed album tell the inside story of Traveller.
Dave Cobb (producer/guitar/percussion): Chris had called us about another artist’s album that I had produced. I was blown away because I had actually seen him about eight years ago with the SteelDrivers. I had always wanted to work with him.
Chris Stapleton (artist/producer): I mainly hunted him down! I was like, “Who’s this guy, who’s Dave Cobb? I’ve got to find out who this guy is that makes records that sound like I want them to sound.”
Vance Powell (engineer/mixer): [Traveller] was [recorded] in August, September and October of 2014 at Ben Folds’ place, RCA Studio A. We would have been the last record recorded there if they hadn’t saved the place.
Cobb: That was Chris Stapleton’s call, really. It was like, “If it’s gonna go, we’re gonna go down with it.” [It’s] such a sacred old historic room, he felt like we needed to be there at the time.
Stapleton: We had a budget to cut six songs so we booked time for that.
Cobb: We got in there and it was just coming out so easy. We have a lot of the same influences so it didn’t seem like work, it felt like we were just hanging out. The label came by and they loved it, and gave us encouragement to keep going. The six songs we were supposed to do turned into a full album.
Robby Turner (pedal steel guitar): It was very relaxed, very creative. There was never pressure on anybody. It was so unlike the studio. When you do a day rate, by the hour, people always watch the clock. This was a very relaxed atmosphere, very creative. It was just a perfect vibe for recording.
Cobb: RCA was actually booked one of the days we’d scheduled for recording so we went out to the Castle [Recording Studios in Franklin, Tenn.] It looks like a castle, it’s out in the countryside. I started walking around the outside of it and the building sounds incredible. I started clapping my hands and it had such an incredible sound on the front porch that we actually set up outside and recorded. It was really magical.
Powell: We did “Might As Well Get Stoned” on the front porch [of the Castle]. We actually recorded everything but the drummer outside. The porch wasn’t big enough for the whole band so Derek Mixon was inside, but we pointed his kick drum out the door. You can hear cars going by and crickets on the track. It was right at sunset. It felt like heaven out there doing that.
Cobb: “Was It 26” wasn’t supposed to be on the album, it just happened. We were just checking mics and Chris started playing it.
Stapleton: There wasn’t a big discussion about it. I said, “Could we run through it one time?” And [Dave was] like, “No!” So that’s what you hear on the record. It’s the first time we ever even tried to play it. That’s very much the spirit of the record.
Jim Beavers (songwriter): We wrote “Parachute” in the summer of 2014. When we wrote this song, I didn’t know Chris was about to go make a record. We wrote it in one day, sang it into an iPhone, and I remember listening to it and thinking it was really cool. Four or five months later, Chris called and said he was going to cut it.
Powell: “Parachute” is one of the songs that Chris sang [more than once]. The band’s performance on the song was so good, but it was late at night and he didn’t feel like his vocal matched the intensity of the band’s performance. So, we just did it again. That’s a rarity.
Turner: I believe “Traveller” was the very first thing I played on [for the album]. I realized when I was playing on it that this was a special project. At the end of that day I told Dave, “Man, this record is really something special.”
Becky Fluke (photographer): The album cover was actually shot a year before the album was even made. Chris and [his wife] Morgane bought a Jeep [Cherokee] online, so we went on a road trip to drive it from Phoenix back to Nashville. The photo was shot somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico.
Stapleton: We were taking a trip and my wife decided it would be good to have Becky document it. We didn’t know that we’d end up doing an album cover or anything like that.
Stapleton earned for 58th GRAMMY nominations, including Best Country Album for Traveller and Best Country Solo Performance for the title track.
Cobb earned two nominations as co-producer of the album, including Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical.
Cobb: Morgane and Chris called me about the GRAMMY nomination. My grandmother, who was kind of like a second mother, had passed the day before. It was a horrible day. The next day I get a phone call at 8 in the morning about the GRAMMY [nominations]. It was a lot of emotions at one time.
Stapleton: I was at my house and we were attempting to watch the GRAMMY [nomination] announcements. Somehow we got our time zone information wrong. So my sister-in-law walked in the house and said, “Congratulations!” We said, “For what?” We looked them up online. That was our finding out.
The 58th GRAMMY Awards nominees for one of the most coveted GRAMMYs comprise an eclectic quintet of artists. This year’s Album Of The Year nominees span roots rock quartet Alabama Shakes’ vibrant Sound & Color, rapper Kendrick Lamar’s timely To Pimp A Butterfly, country singer/songwriter Chris Stapleton’s organic Traveller, Taylor Swift’s pop juggernaut 1989, and The Weeknd’s seductive R&B collection Beauty Behind The Madness.
The Recording Academy asked some of the artists and key collaborators behind these projects to tell the inside story of each nominated album. Visit GRAMMY.com to read the oral histories of all five 2015 Album Of The Year nominees.
Lisa Zhito is a writer and teacher based in Nashville, Tenn. Her most recent work for GRAMMY.com was an interview with Colbie Caillat for the GRAMMY Hall of Fame Inspiration series.
Tune in to the 58th Annual GRAMMY Awards live from Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday, Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CBS.