Typically, you’ll find the star of the show positioned right smack dab in the middle of the stage. So leave it to Chris Stapleton to break that rule, too.
A portly and bearded Kentucky native, the 39-year-old Stapleton is Nashville’s current brightest star and least-likely hitmaker in recent memory - pretty much precisely because he eschews show-business conventions. It seems to be working out.
Playing before a sold-out Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek Friday night, Stapleton set up shop off to the side. And he let his backup singer (and wife) Morgane Stapleton have the center-stage spotlight.
Also contributing to the journeyman vibe, Stapleton had fewer players onstage than either of his opening acts - a stripped-down quartet that played a solid, workmanlike set that would have gone over just as well in a smoky bar as an outdoor amphitheater. And just to put an exclamation point on his blue-collar sympathies, Stapleton gave a shout-out of thanks to the stage crew during the encore. He’s proud to be a working man, for sure.
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It doesn’t quite qualify as a credibility scare, but between Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson (who will play in Cary in July), harder-edged music is suddenly more welcome in the country mainstream than it’s been in years. Stapleton acknowledged his roots in the outlaw side of country with a set list that covered songs by David Allan Coe, Charlie Daniels, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Willie Nelson, plus his old bluegrass band the SteelDrivers.
The late great country outlaw Waylon Jennings was in the house, too, sort of. Right before showtime, the background music played Jennings and Nelson’s 1978 hit “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” The crowd sang along with gusto, and did the same for Stapleton originals including “Whiskey and You.”
Stapleton and his band produced a good full sound out of guitar, bass, drums and occasional tambourine from Morgane. Yet it would be hard to single out any one element as the X-factor that puts Stapleton’s presentation over the top. Stapleton’s own voice, a soulfully raspy yowl that lands close to country-blues, is probably the closest thing, and he plays a fine blues-rock guitar.
But mostly, it seems to come down to sincerity. Stapleton appears to be a genuine maverick, determined to do what he wants the way he wants it, without making a big show out of his independence. Outwardly modest in demeanor, he seems as surprised as anyone else to be at the top of the pop charts at this late date.
The best part is he seems built for the long haul. The show’s peak moment came toward the end, a cover of “You Are My Sunshine.” Most renditions of this 1930s-vintage country song are pretty perky, despite its pleading desperation (“You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you/Please don’t take my sunshine away”). But that darkness is right what the Stapletons honed in on, turning it into an anguished lament with keening vocal harmonies.
It was great.