Chris Stapleton
Lincoln Theatre, Raleigh
Saturday, June 13

“I feel like Reba McEntire up here, I might need a costume change,” said singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton, referencing the steamy, sold-out Lincoln Theatre’s sweaty temperatures and McEntire’s ’90s-era award show costume carousel. “Sorry for putting the image of me in that red dress in your head.”

It’s a funny thought, picturing him in that infamous “Does He Love You”-era sheer, slinky number that raised so many pre-Miley Cyrus eyebrows at the 1993 CMA Awards show. Stapleton’s long, wild beard would cover up the most plunging of necklines, and his ever-present cowboy hat would have crushed McEntire’s then-teased bangs. He’s an imposing black-clad figure on stage, matched only by the impressive variety of material on his debut solo album Traveller, cutting turns on guitar and incredibly powerful voice.

That voice was in full force in Raleigh, somehow country, bluesy, jazzy and Southern rocking all at once. The crowd let out appreciative hoots and hollers for each of the singer’s raw bursts of vocals, as well as for the sharp harmonies from backup singer and wife Morgane Stapleton.

Case in point: His take on the George Jones staple “Tennessee Whiskey” turned it into a smoky, slow-burning jazz session, underlining the chorus’ comparison of alcoholism and love with a long string of acrobatic syllables. His apparent appreciation for Jones’ fellow country statesman Don Williams was well represented with two of the set’s covers, “Tulsa Time” and “Amanda.” (Although it could point to an affinity for Waylon Jennings, who also recorded the latter and whose face was printed on Morgane’s T-shirt.)

With many of the fans shouting out years-old song requests and singing every word to all the lyrics, the show didn’t have a normal debut album tour vibe—but then again, Stapleton isn’t a normal debut album artist. He’s written bonafide mainstream country hits for some of the genre’s biggest names. Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Darius Rucker and Jason Aldean have all recorded his songs, as well as country’s reigning president of the bro-country fraternity, Luke Bryan. (To be fair, Stapleton’s “Drink a Beer” was one of Bryan’s rare releases missing any mention of sugar-shakers or money-makers.) He also led the bluegrassy group The Steeldrivers, giving him a wide variety of material to insert into his set list.

What did feel similar to many new artists’ shows was his wide-eyed appreciation for the crowd’s response. After finishing an enthusiastic singalong to title track “Traveller,” Stapleton took a step back in seeming disbelief. Morgane, standing to his side and often tossing a sweaty towel his way, wiped away a tear from her eye.

It was a sentiment echoed by opener Sam Lewis, an Asheboro-native whose sharp, Southern Gothic take on growing up in the rural South produced songs such as “Virginia Avenue.” Its lyrics “See that house just across the way/It’s for rent again/It’s been passed from poor white trash down to the Mexicans” pointing to darker undertones missing from country radio’s party-hearty mentality. He noted the tour bus had hurtled up I-95 from Charleston earlier that day, thanking the crowd for making the tour’s Raleigh visit its third sold-out show in as many stops.

Stapleton awarded the crowd for helping him reach that feat with a four-song encore, before nodding appreciatively one last time and ambling off-stage to change out of his sweat-soaked shirt.