by Julian Spivey
Chris Stapleton, who’s been seen as something of a country music savior over the last year, brought in a ton of patrons to Little Rock’s annual Riverfest music festival on Saturday night (June 4) with an hour and a half set that highlighted his nearly perfect voice and traditional country music sound.
Now let’s get one thing straight first off, Stapleton is traditional country music, but maybe more so in the themes he chooses to sing about like heartache and drinking rather than his actual sound. When it comes to the sound it’s a glorious concoction of true country music complete with steel guitar as well as sounds of Southern Rock and even soul and R&B thrown in when you take into account his mighty soulful vocals.
Stapleton opened his set with recent ACM Song of the Year “Nobody to Blame,” his most successful single off of his Grammy-winning album Traveller. The single reached the top 10 on country radio airplay charts and immediately got the shoulder-to-shoulder jam-packed Riverfest audience into the performance.
Stapleton has generally gone from a nobody (though he’s been a successful songwriter for more than a decade in Nashville and was a member of the popular bluegrass group The Steeldrivers) to superstar in just the span of a year. Stapleton has won five ACMs, three CMAs and two Grammy Awards in the last calendar year and you can tell just how huge he’s gotten from the number of tickets he sales, as well as the fact that the majority of those seeing him live know every single word of his songs.
Stapleton truly is a musical bastion, a place true country music lovers who’ve been outcasted by the genre’s current pop-influenced, redneck-taketh over ways can go and enjoy the sounds they love and miss.
There wasn’t a single bad performance in Stapleton’s 90-minute set on Saturday night performed on a lawn in front of the Bill Clinton Presidential Library. One of the highlights came early on with a terrific cover of the Rodney Crowell/Waylon Jennings song “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” truly one of the all-time underrated country classics. Stapleton would play another fantastic cover later on in his set with a Southern fried take on Tom Petty’s mid-‘90s hit “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” which took a couple of lyrics before I realized what it was and I don’t know that some of the audience ever figured it out.
Stapleton played the majority of his award-winning Traveller album with tracks like “Outlaw State of Mind,” “Was It 26,” “The Devil Named Music,” with an intro of “Free Bird” before it. The title track from the album along with my personal favorite from it, “Fire Away,” were true crowd favorites. Stapleton seemed particularly impressed with the crowd’s love of “Fire Away,” with the masses singing along to each chorus and following the song he allowed his legions of fans to sing the chorus back to him one last time.
Stapleton also thrilled the crowd with a performance of “Midnight Train to Memphis,” a song he performed previously with The Steeldrivers and his wife, Morgane, and himself collaborated on the traditional “You Are My Sunshine,” which appears on producer Dave Cobb’s excellent collaborative album Southern Family, which was released in March.
Stapleton was perfect all evening long, but a good portion of the packed crowd at Riverfest was a nightmare. This was no more evident than when Stapleton performed a couple of slower songs from his album in “More of You” and “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” when the overly-loud drunken conversations from surrounding patrons helped to drown out the performance. This coupled with folks trying to shove their way through a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd for a potential better view led to some irritating moments during the show. It continues to amaze this music lover how many people pay good money to see a concert and seemingly want to do everything at the show but actually listen/watch the performance. Why not just save your money and hang out at home?
Stapleton ended his set with a couple of more great tunes from Traveller with his soulful cover of the George Jones classic “Tennessee Whiskey” followed by the rocking “Might As Well Get Stoned.”
Stapleton left the Riverfest stage to uproarious applause before returning a couple of minutes later for an encore of the truly soulful “Sometimes I Cry,” which is a song that I believe drew a lot of people to the Stapleton bandwagon after they saw him perform it on “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon” last year.
Stapleton showed on Saturday night why he’s consider by many to be one of the artists capable of saving country music, even though it’s not a service he thinks is necessary. It is. And whether or not he believes it it’s something he’s doing, unintentionally or not.