Chris Stapleton is nominated for Entertainer of the Year at the 50th Annual CMA Awards next month and his first of two sold-out performances at Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater on Friday evening (Oct. 14) proved exactly why. Playing for over 90 minutes, the singer never stopped shredding or belting song after song. Despite a few short stories and an epic band introduction sung to the melody of “Tennessee Whiskey,” the singer barely paused from one epic guitar jam to the next and as each musical interlude continued the crowd only got louder.
No pyrotechnics were used, no special effects, the night was simply a man and his band and for the nearly 7,000 in attendance that was more than enough. Stapleton kicked off his set shortly after 9 p.m. with the familiar guitar introduction to “Nobody to Blame.” Dressed all in black with his signature blonde cowboy hat, the entire amphitheater was screaming along from the front row to the lawn seats.
“How you doing, Nashville?” he asked at the start of his set. “We’re going to have us some fun tonight.”
And he wasn’t lying. Despite rain earlier in the day, by the time Stapleton took the stage the skies had cleared and the downtown area permeated with his booming voice and mesmerizing guitar licks.
While his set incorporated many songs off his critically acclaimed debut Traveller — including a jaw-dropping cover of George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey” and the epic “Fire Away” — he also brought fans back to his roots with a rollicking performance of “Midnight Train to Memphis” from his former band, the SteelDrivers. On each track Stapleton’s gruff and blues-infused vocals were accompanied by his stellar backing band on pedal steel, bass, guitar and percussion.
The gritty “Outlaw State of Mind” had concertgoers raising their drinks high in the air as it turned into a jam session towards the song’s end with a musical interlude that no doubt had Nashville’s best musicians in awe. Meanwhile, whiskey lovers appreciated “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey,” which Stapleton wrote and Gary Allan recorded in 2003 followed by the SteelDrivers re-recording in 2009.
“This next song is written by a dear friend, Don Sampson,” Stapleton said as he prefaced “Was It 26.” “When I first got to town I went to a writers round and Don played this song. After he got off the stage I told him how much I liked it and he said, ‘Son, some day when you’re older maybe you can record it.’ So I did.”
While songs like the poignant “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” hushed the crowd, others like “You Are My Sunshine” had them cheering for Stapleton’s wife, Morgane, who had the spotlight on the song. As she and Chris shared harmonies throughout the night, this time it was her turn to shine and she got as many cheers as her husband.
Additional highlights included the title track off his album Traveller as well as a barn burner of a duet between opener Lee Ann Womack and Stapleton, who returned to the stage to perform together a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” made famous by Waylon Jennings. Stapleton also praised Womack for being the first artist to ever take him out on tour.
As he closed his set and thanked the audience for coming one thing was certain: country music is in very good hands with Chris Stapleton.
Womack, who opened the show playing what she called “real country music,” impressed with her traditional brand of country on classic songs like “Never Again, Again,” “Don’t Tell Me” and “I’m Going to Hate Myself In the Morning,” which she said is one of her favorite songs she’s ever recorded. Her pristine vocals had listeners entranced as she covered George Jones’ “You’re Still On My Mind.” While Womack also debuted some excellent new material which will be featured on her upcoming album out next year, it was on her previous No. 1 “I Hope You Dance” that reminded us all the power of true country music with lyrics that leave a lasting mark. As the evening closed, Nashville country music fans could rest easy knowing artists like Womack and Stapleton continue to keep the tradition alive.