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The SteelDrivers

A Conversation with Chris Stapleton (continued)

PM: I've not seen the SteelDrivers for a little while, but I saw what I believe were some of the first gigs. When I'd heard that Mike, Richard, and Tammy were doing a bluegrass band with Fleming on bass, I thought, "Well, that's a no-brainer, that ought to work pretty good." But then when I heard you sing, I thought, "Oh, well, that's what launching that group is all about. Who's that guy? He sings unbelievable!" But you'd known at least Mike, but maybe everybody for some time by the time the group got together.

CS: The only person in the band that I knew was Mike. I've written songs with Mike almost as long as I've been in town. That was something that Liz O'Sullivan put together and thought that we would do well. And we do. Actually the first cut I ever got I got with Mike. I got a song called "Higher Than the Walls" on a Patty Loveless record.

PM: And have other tunes of yours with Mike been cut since that time?

CS: We also got a cut on Gary Allan called "Drinking Dark Whiskey" that was slated to be a single, but never quite made it. But that's the way it goes.

PM: Yeah. You write a song, and then whatever happens, happens.

CS: Yeah, it's out of your hands at that point.

PM: But when the SteelDrivers first met up, you only knew Mike, he was the only one you had met, and Mike brought the other people to--

CS: I only knew Mike. I did know Tammy's husband Jeff King.

PM: He's an old friend of mine. He's a great guy.

CS: And he is a great guy. And I knew him through various session guys that I'm around on occasion. But I did not know Tammy. Everybody else kind of had a history with each other. Of course, Mike's known Fleming since college, I guess. And they all kind of go way back. And Richard has known Tammy since she was 14 or something.

PM: Holy jeez.

CS: So they've all known each other way longer. That kind of makes it fun, too, that they all know each other that well.

PM: Now, the first gig I saw when I caught the SteelDrivers, I don't know, it seemed like it was maybe at that place on the east side called the Alley Cat or something like that. I can't remember where I saw it. It was on the east side.

CS: Well, we have played once that I can think of at the Three Crow Bar.

PM: Yeah, maybe it was Three Crow, yeah.

CS: And actually our first gigs were kind of practice gigs that we didn't tell anybody about. We played the VFW in Franklin.

PM: [laughs]

CS: Richard Bailey is friends with a guy named Ron Kimbro who is a member out there.

PM: Ron Kimbro, sure.

CS: And we went out there for our kind of dress rehearsal you might call it--

PM: Unbelievable.

CS: --to figure out if we could handle standing up, because until that time we'd only done rehearsals at Mike's house sitting around.

PM: Right. The first gigs I saw, and I heard you sing, I said, "Wow, it sounds like Lowell George in a bluegrass band." [laughs] But now it does seem more like the way it's being described, as kind of a bluegrass soul thing.

CS: Well, I don't know about that. It is what it is, I guess.

PM: Yeah. You bring something special to the table, Chris, as a singer, that's for sure.

CS: Well, thank you. I appreciate it.

PM: Really, really something special. And considering all the depth of talent in the band, I think it's the one single thing that stands the band out immediately and will help launch the thing. So, have you and Mike penned a serious amount of bluegrass songs since the group came together as well?

CS: That was part of the reason for the band, is Mike and I share a love for that kind of music, and a lot of the songs that we would write were that. I credit Mike solely with the idea for having this band. We had these songs sitting around, and he likes to say that we had "perfectly good songs going to waste." He said, "What would you think about playing a little bluegrass?" And I hadn't played live on stage since I'd been in town, at that point in time, which was a couple years ago. I mean, I've done the odd writer round thing.

PM: And as well as you sing, I mean, that's an unthinkable thing, that four or five years might have gone by without much stage stuff.

CS: Well, I've kind of had the door open to be a songwriter, and really felt like that was something I should try to establish myself in. I really concentrated on that a lot, and spent a good deal of my waking hours doing that.

PM: So you were after it like a house on fire, this songwriting thing.

CS: Oh, yeah. I would write twice a day. I'd write as many as nine or ten songs a week.

PM: Get the hell out of here!

CS: [laughs] Tried it. Well, and you've got to kind of take notes from all these guys who have success around town, your Craig Wisemans, and your Jeff Steeles. They write a lot.

PM: You were writing nine or ten songs a week?!

CS: I don't do that now, but I might get three or four a week. But it's the law of averages a lot for those guys. People don't really realize how much those guys work.

PM: Right. And the thing is, the guys who write hundreds of songs in a year, you wonder, well, how do you ever get that many songs pitched? You don't.

CS: You don't.

PM: It's just mathematically impossible.

CS: Well, it is until hopefully you try to get to the level where people are asking for them instead of having to beg people to hear them.

PM: Right. And then you can start sending them by the bushel basket over to wherever.

CS: Right.

PM: Yeah, here's a dozen for you and a dozen for you.

CS: Right.

PM: So pardon me if this question seems premature, but do you have solo records out, too? Or is there one already in the works, or on the drawing board?

CS: No. And for a brief time I spoke with several country labels about doing a country record, and some that never did--really didn't pan out even though I had committed to some things at a certain label in town that I won't mention.

PM: Right.


CS: And this was kind of emerging at the same time as some of this bluegrass stuff. And the other stuff didn't pan out, and I'm completely a gut guy, so I go with my guts on all things, even if it doesn't make sense to other people sometimes.


CS: So I was doing this. Typically a lot of the music that I like in all genres is made by bands, and not by individuals hiring hired guns.

PM: You're a band guy, yeah.

CS: I'm a band guy for the most part--or at least I am right now, I think. My opinions can be shaped based on whether I feel like it.

PM: Right. They're strong, but changeable.

CS: But at this point in my musical head, bands make more sense, and can make better music if everybody is on the same page. I tried to put a band together early on being here, and never really got it off the ground. I didn't know the people. I tried to get some guys like Brian Sutton, and folks like that interested, and I couldn't do it. But the right thing came up. When Mike Henderson calls and asks, "Hey, do you want to be in a band?," the answer is "Yes." Because I have that kind of reverence for him as an artist and as a musician.

PM: Oh, certainly.

CS: As a writer and as a person.

PM: Yeah, all the way around.

CS: So pretty much me being in the band is a function of Mike asking me to, and that was all it really took.

PM: Yeah. I certainly understand that kind of feeling about Henderson. He just engenders that kind of respect. I heard that the shows at the Station have been really backed. Is the younger set going crazy for the group, college kids, or even younger, as well as your contemporaries?

CS: Our crowd has been really varied. We have everyone from teenage high school people all the way up to 80 year-old grandmothers.

PM: It's beautiful.

CS: So it's really a diverse crowd of people who all seem to enjoy the music. And it varies, obviously, within a demographic. But as far as the crowd goes, yeah, it's a wide range of ages and even ethnicities, so it's pretty neat to see a crowd like that. It's kind of the point at the Station now they'll even sing some songs back at you, so it's kind of fun.

PM: Do you guys have a multiple release deal with Rounder?

CS: I think our deal goes three records. But it's also a non-exclusive deal, which means we could do other things as individuals, which was part of my reason for doing it. I needed that, because I love all kinds of music, and need the freedom to do that.

PM: Well, I'd love to poke around about that a minute, if you would. Are there other kinds of music that may lie somewhat far afield from bluegrass that you'd like to record or write?

CS: Well, I actually am rehearsing a rock band right now. I have a rock band that's kind of in the works.

PM: Wow. What's it called?

CS: We don't really have a name yet. It's just four guys who enjoy playing with each other. [laughs]

PM: Is it okay to ask who it is, in case I may know the cats?

CS: No, you wouldn't know any of them, because they're all relatively unknown guys. One of them is a transplant I'm bringing here from Kentucky. Another guy is a guy that I got to move here from Athens. And the other guy, the drummer, who's actually a banker right now, but is a really great drummer that I've kind of got to know. And they're all guys who are younger than I am, and I'm not old, I'm 29.

PM: That's all you are, 29?

CS: Yes, sir.

PM: Unbelievable! I've heard a lot of doubles, but drummer/banker, I don't think I've heard that one before.

CS: And the bass player is an accountant.

PM: Oh, wow! That's a pretty fiscally minded band.

CS: It is a fiscally minded band, no doubt.


PM: For a rock band.

CS: But it's very early stages, and it's just like the SteelDrivers, we're going to just kind of see where it goes. The intent is to get together and play some, go out and play some live, and then just kind of feel it out from there. But right now I'm concentrating on SteelDrivers stuff.

PM: Well, I can't wait to see that rock band, though, too. I'm all about that.

How about you, are you much of a book reader?

CS: A book reader? I'm not, [laughs] I'm ashamed to say. I do enjoy a book on occasion, but I wouldn't, by any stretch of the imagination, call myself an avid reader. I tend to be obsessed with music a little too much, probably. Most of my brain gets distracted by that.

PM: Well, it's paying off. What can you say?

CS: Well, I guess, by God, yes. I will say I know Henderson is a really, really avid reader.

PM: Is he? I didn't know that about him.

CS: And particularly history books. So we do a few historical pieces, particularly the Civil War, which he's very interested in. And he really is well-read on a lot of counts, of history books. So if there's anything that sounds intelligent, it probably comes from him. [laughs]

PM: He is an interesting guy.

CS: Oh, he's well beyond interesting. That is not quite the word for him.

PM: Yeah. I've always considered him just one of the most fascinating and talented people in Nashville or anywhere else that I ran up against. I mean, I always thought that if Sam Shepard knew Mike Henderson--I don't know if he does--that he'd be moved to do a movie with him, or do a movie about him. I mean, he's just a classic American character.

CS: Yes, absolutely. And that's the way I feel about it, too. So it's always a pleasure to get to play with him, for sure.

PM: Are you a family man, or is it just you and your wife?

CS: It's just me and my wife. We actually just got married in October.

PM: Oh, congrats. That's beautiful.

CS: Thank you.

PM: Where did you meet her?

CS: She's also a songwriter here in town, and we met here in town. She's from Georgia originally, though.

PM: What's her name?

CS: Her name is Morgan--well, it's Stapleton, now. It was Morgan Hayes, professionally.

PM: Are you what somebody might call a spiritual or even a religious sort of guy?

CS: Not necessarily. I grew up in church. I grew up in the Church of God in Paintsville, but I don't currently attend a church right now.

PM: But not what you'd call spiritual otherwise?

CS: No, not really, I wouldn't say. I mean, certainly I believe there's a higher power. I don't really practice, I don't guess.

PM: Yeah. When you like to get away from the business, the music business, if you ever do, and from work, is there any place you like to go?

CS: Well, this changes. My friend Steve Leslie, who brought me to town, we used to have a joke when I was first in town, we'd get done writing or something and he'd say, "What are you going to do tonight?" And I'd say, "I don't know." And he'd say, "What state are you going to be in?" And I'd say, "I don't know." I used to have a tendency just to take off, pick a direction--


CS: --and stop when I felt like it. But I don't do that quite so much anymore. But I do like to get away, and those places are varied. I just got back from New York City. I played with a friend of mine named Jimmy Stewart.

PM: Ah, yeah.

CS: Just played as a sideman with him, and that was fun. Again, that's not getting away from music, but I find things like going to different cities revitalizing to me. It's cool, because you can see things. And I like to see my family a lot. I have a brother and a three year-old nephew. I go back and see Mom and Dad, and just get out of town and sit on the couch and sit around the dinner table with them. And that's probably as refreshing as anything to me.

PM: That's beautiful. Where were you and Jimmy gigging in New York?

CS: We played at a place call The Rodeo Bar.

PM: Oh, sure, I know it well. That's a good little bar.

CS: Also a place called the Living Room.

PM: Oh, yeah, I know both rooms very well. I've gone to many shows at both of those places, I like them a lot. Yeah, the Living Room, it's a good little bohemian venue.

CS: It's great sounding room, and the right size for kind of a smaller room. It was a really fun room to play. That's the second time we've done that. Jimmy is actually an artist on Warner Brothers.

PM: Yeah, I've heard him. He's a great artist, absolutely.

PM: So who do you like for president?

CS: Who do I like for president? Oh, I don't think anybody, really.


PM: That's how I've been for a long time. But suddenly I'm getting interested a little bit in politics. I don't know, it might be the tone and timing of this particular race.

CS: Yeah. I don't trust any of them, so I can't say that liking any of them would be--"like" would be too strong a word.

[laughter]           continue


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