Chris Stapleton On 'Starting Over' And Writing For The Moment

Nov 13, 2020
Originally published on November 16, 2020 5:32 am

Chris Stapleton may be offbeat for Nashville — big beard, old style, more personal lyrics — but he's still the kind of songwriter who can churn out an album in a couple of weeks. Before he blew up as a solo artist five years ago, he was already writing hits for artists like Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan. It was the 2015 CMA awards, where he performed a medley with Justin Timberlake, that took his career to another level.

Putting together his latest album, Starting Over, was more of a struggle than usual. Seeking a creative stimulus, he and his crew booked the storied Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. Then fate stepped in.

"All the power went out in the entire town of Muscle Shoals," the Grammy winner says, "I was kind of like, maybe this isn't happening. Maybe we just need to shut down and write some more, live some more, tour some more. And that's what we did."

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When Stapleton picked up Starting Over again, his title track felt like a universal sentiment for 2020. But the song, he says, came to him and his writing partner much earlier. "As you do with songs sometimes, you write 'em and, pull it back out and you listen to it, and maybe it means something else in a different time, which is beautiful," he says. "That's what actually gives it life to me."

NPR's Noel King spoke with Stapleton about navigating fame, songwriting as therapy and why he sometimes used to sleep with a guitar by his side. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Noel King: There's a song on this album called "Nashville, TN" that sounds like it was written by a person who is saying goodbye to a city. What is that song about? Is it about you?

Chris Stapleton: Yeah, absolutely. That song didn't necessarily happen in the course of making this record, but certainly, when we had our moment on the CMAs with Justin Timberlake where things kind of blew up for us, our lives were changed.

You got famous.

[At my house,] the bus starts coming by with tourists twice a day — you know, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. — and you're out in the front yard trying to kick a ball. A dude shows up in your driveway from North Carolina because he hunted you down someway. No one has ever done anything malicious to me, but it's a little unnerving when you spend 38 years of your life in relative anonymity. We rented a house down the street, just to get away from the bus and figure out where we were gonna go. But in that rental house, 1 a.m., [this] song comes out.

Let me ask about a specific lyric that caught my ear: "So long Nashville, Tennessee / You can't have what's left of me." That lyric makes me think Nashville was eating you up a little bit.

I don't know. I think if you examine that lyric and that song as a relationship between two people, and not just a person and a town — everybody has a moment in relationships where we have to kind of set boundaries. And maybe that was me setting a boundary. Songs like that come out very quickly: You're talking about 10 or 15 minutes. I have a friend who describes it as, you kind of stick your antenna up in the air and see what you get. I like the conduit theory, because it's not this super narcissistic, you know, "I'm the greatest thing ever, listen to this thing I did." I don't feel that way in any way, shape or form. I feel very lucky. I don't know, maybe it's magic.

Tell me about "Maggie's Song." Who's Maggie? What's that song about?

I wrote that song the day after our dog, Maggie, passed away. We had her for 14 years and I miss her quite a bit. I'm not really a dog person, either, that's worth saying. But I loved that dog for sure. Every word of that song is just a true thing.

When you write a song that's sad, do you cry when you write it? Or is that just the rest of us?

I'm crying on the recording of that. I don't know if you can hear or not. There was a couple of words that had to [replace], which is not normally something we would do — usually we capture live performances, but there were a few words that were indiscernible. I'm definitely in a real spot on that song.

Is it standard practice for you to sit down and write a song when something big happens?

I would certainly say that it's therapeutic. Playing a guitar, for me, is very much that: If I had a security blanket, that would be what it is. When I was a single man, I used to sleep with one. Not in any kind of weird way, but I would fall asleep with it, you know? And sometimes, a lot of times, those songs are just for that moment.

So if a song's just for that moment, does that mean your fans never hear it? How does it work?

Yes, a lot of times, those kinds of things are written as an exercise to cope. But other times, and more so on this record than previous records, I think we felt led to include some of these things. That's what that extra year gave us perspective on in the making of it, is maybe it's okay to include some of these things.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Five years ago, Chris Stapleton became a country music superstar. His first record went triple platinum, and he gave this performance with Justin Timberlake at the 2015 Country Music Awards, which, if you've seen it, you remember it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TENNESSEE WHISKEY")

CHRIS STAPLETON AND JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) You're as smooth as Tennessee whiskey. You're as sweet as strawberry wine.

KING: It was a big deal because Stapleton had made a living writing for other artists - these rootsy, gorgeous songs that he told me take him about 10 or 15 minutes to write. Albums come easy to him, but on his latest, he got blocked. He had to take about a year off working on this new album, which is called "Starting Over."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARTING OVER")

CHRIS STAPLETON: (Singing) This might not be an easy time. There's rivers to cross and hills to climb.

Sometimes, creatively, you want something - a stimulus of some kind. So we booked Muscle Shoals Sound and we went down there for a couple - three days. And it seemed like the universe was kind of telling us to shut down. Like, all the power went out in the entire town of Muscle Shoals and...

KING: No. This is down in Alabama, right?

STAPLETON: Yeah. Yeah. And I was like, you know, maybe this isn't happening. Maybe we just need to shut down, write some more or live some more or tour some more. And that's what we did. So in 2019, we did that and then we picked back up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARTING OVER")

STAPLETON: (Singing) I can be your lucky penny. You can be my four leaf clover, starting over.

KING: "Starting Over" seems like a very 2020 sentiment but the song actually came to Chris and his writing partner much earlier.

STAPLETON: I walked in the room and we started talking about how there's times in life when you look at your partner and you kind of got to be like, you know, let's get back down to the basics of it and let's kind of get to the core of it and know that we're going to be OK because we have each other. And we kind of - as you do with songs sometimes, you kind of write them and you pull it back out and you listen to it and maybe it means something else in a different time, which is - that's what actually gives it life, to me.

KING: There's a song on this album called "Nashville, TN" which sounds like it was written by a person who is saying goodbye to a city.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NASHVILLE, TN")

STAPLETON: (Singing) I met you when I had a dream not so long ago it seems. We closed down a million bars. Yeah, you and me, we’ve come so far...

KING: What is that song about? Is it about you?

STAPLETON: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I mean, that song didn't necessarily happen in the course of making this record. But certainly when we had our moment on the CMA's with Justin Timberlake where things kind of blew up for us a little bit.

KING: You got famous.

STAPLETON: Well, our lives were changed just a little bit. I lived on a street, in a house, in a neighborhood, you know? And then the bus starts coming by with tourists twice a day, you know, 11 and 2. And you're out in the front yard trying to kick a ball or, you know, a dude shows up in your driveway from North Carolina because he hunted you down some way. You know, no one has ever done anything malicious to me, but it's a little unnerving when you spend 38 years of your life in relative anonymity. We rented a house down the street just to kind of get away from the bus. And then in that rental house, 1 o'clock in the morning, this song comes out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NASHVILLE, TN")

STAPLETON: (Singing) So long, Nashville, Tenn. You can’t have what’s left of me. And as far as I can tell, it’s high time I wish you well. You build me up, you set me free. You tore down my memories. So you be you, and I’ll be me. So long, Nashville, Tennessee.

KING: That lyric makes me think Nashville was eating you up a little bit.

STAPLETON: I don't know. I think if you examine that song as a relationship between two people and not just a person in a town, everybody has a moment in relationships where you have to kind of set boundaries. And maybe that was me setting a boundary. And when songs like that came out, it comes out very quickly. You're talking about something that comes out in 10 or 15 minutes. You know, I have a friend who describes it as you kind of stick your antenna up in the air and see what you get like we're radio receivers. And I like the conduit theory because it's not this super narcissistic, you know, I'm the greatest thing ever, listen to this thing I did, you know? Like, (laughter) I don't feel that way in any way, shape or form. I feel very lucky. I don't know. It's - maybe it's magic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGGIE'S SONG")

STAPLETON: (Singing) Let me tell you a story about an old friend of mine...

KING: Tell me about "Maggie's Song." Who's Maggie? What's that song about?

STAPLETON: Well, every word of that song is just a true thing. And I wrote that song the day after our dog, Maggie, passed away. And we had her for 14 years and I miss her quite a bit. But - and I'm not really a dog person either - that's worth saying - but I loved that dog for sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGGIE'S SONG")

STAPLETON: (Singing) She put her head on my hand, like she'd done so many times. I told her she was a good dog, then I told her goodbye. Run, Maggie, run with the heart of a rebel child...

KING: When you write a song that's sad, do you cry when you write it or is that just the rest of us?

STAPLETON: Sure. I'm crying on the recording of that. I don't know if you can hear that totally or not. There was a couple words that had to (laughter) - and which is not normally something we would do, is replace a word. Usually, we capture live performances but there were a few words that were indiscernible just (laughter) just, you know? But, yeah, I'm definitely in a real spot on that song.

KING: Is it kind of a standard practice for you to sit down and write a song when something big happens?

STAPLETON: I would certainly say it's therapeutic. And playing a guitar, for me, is very much that, like holding a guitar. If I had a security blanket, that would be what it is. When I was a single man, I probably used to sleep with one.

KING: (Laughter).

STAPLETON: Not in any kind of weird way, but I would fall asleep with it, you know? Like...

KING: Yeah.

STAPLETON: Yeah, I use it definitely in that way. And sometimes - a lot of times, those songs are just for that moment.

KING: And if a song's just for that moment, does that mean your fans never hear it? Is it something you don't put out or - how does it work?

STAPLETON: Yes. A lot of times those kind of things are written as an exercise to cope. But, you know, other times - and more so on this record than previous records - I think we felt led to include some of these things. That's what that extra year gave us perspective on in the making of it is maybe it's OK to include some of these things.

KING: Chris Stapleton - the new album is called "Starting Over" - thank you so much for being with us today.

STAPLETON: Thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD FRIENDS")

STAPLETON: (Singing) Old friends, they shine like a diamond... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.