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On 'Traveller,' country musician Chris Stapleton steps into spotlight

Country musician Chris Stapleton performs with Jason Isbell on Saturday at <a href="http://events.baltimoresun.com/venues/merriweather-post-pavilion-columbia" target="_blank">Merriweather Post Pavilion</a>.
Country musician Chris Stapleton performs with Jason Isbell on Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion. (Becky Fluke / Handout)

Country fans have long been familiar with Chris Stapleton's work. It was only in the past year or so, however, that many of them realized it.

The 38-year-old's breakout album, 2015's "Traveller," established him as a powerhouse solo artist. But Stapleton, who plays with Jason Isbell at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday, has been playing in bands and writing songs for musicians such as Tim McGraw, Adele and Kenny Chesney for years.

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"I've always made records; I was in bands and toured," Stapleton, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., said. "Universal came to me to see if I was interested in making a country record for them, so that's what we did, is the short of it."

Released in May of last year, "Traveller" saw a second life in November after Stapleton and Justin Timberlake performed a raucous, bluesy duet at the Country Music Association Awards (the performance energized the awards ceremony and internet alike). He also took home the night's awards for album of the year, male vocalist of the year and new artist of the year; two Grammys followed in February.

Though that performance propelled Stapleton to a wider audience, he insists not much has changed, though "more people say hi to you at a restaurant."

"I don't feel much different, but certainly there are things that are different, in terms of a lot of people showing up to the show and things like that," said Stapleton, who co-produced "Traveller" with Dave Cobb. "We try not to change what we're doing or who we are based on that."

Stapleton's success also has enabled him to play with personal heroes such as Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.

"Boxes have been checked. I've been real fortunate. Bucket list things have been able to happen for me," he added.

Songs aren't sacred to Stapleton, who grew up in a small Kentucky town listening to outlaw country and R&B in the car with his coal miner father. Though he wrote some of the songs on "Traveller" as long as 14 years ago, he said he wasn't hanging on to them for a solo opportunity.

"They were always just songs, and people were welcome to record them at any time. It was the right time to record those songs, and I've always kind of approached music that way," he said. "I don't like to sit around hoarding songs and saving them up."

Whether Stapleton records a song himself or sells it to another artist comes down to the personal enjoyment he gets playing the track, and whether another musician has shown interest in it, he said.

"It's funny — you can try to have a song for somebody that you think they would like, but if it's like something they've already done before, they're not going to do it again," Stapleton said. "You never know what somebody's going to like, what somebody's going to record."

When Stapleton put out "Traveller," music critics were quick to praise him as an anti-"bro country" hero; the irony that Stapleton writes music for many of the artists he's positioned as the antithesis of is not lost on him.

"I work in all kinds of music, and I've worked with guys they claim I'm the anti-thing of. I can't be the problem and the solution. It's kind of funny to me," he said. "I make music with people that I like and hopefully do the best I can to be making things that are worth listening to."

Stapleton similarly doesn't wrap himself up in debates over what constitutes "real" country music. To him, the genre's definition is as simple — and broad — as "country people making music" (which, he notes, used to be called "hillbilly" music).

"I know a lot of pretty country guys making some music that would be the kind of music that somebody might make their arguments against, but they're country guys, I know for a fact," he said. "That's country music."

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Stapleton will spend the bulk of 2016 on a tour bus rather than in Nashville; as he slows down at the end of the year, he plans to think about working on a new record, "rest and repeat, so to speak." As a songwriter since his late teenage years, however, Stapleton is always at work, mining inspiration.

"You're looking around; somebody might say something," he said. "You could say something in this conversation that might spark a notion. You're always working and paying attention and listening and hoping things will drop out of the air on you."

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