Smooth like the Tennessee whiskey he sings about, Chris Stapleton fires up Alerus Center crowd
Stapleton played “Tennessee Whiskey” at the end of his set Thursday and received a rousing response from an audience that likely numbered north of 15,000.
GRAND FORKS – How is it that Chris Stapleton, the writer of dozens of hit songs recorded by himself and others, can take someone else’s 40-year-old country lyrics, lay them over a blues melody and make the result sound so original and so darn good?
That kind of ability has pushed Stapleton to superstar status in the world of country music, and it was a highlight during his performance Thursday at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.
Stapleton — who first became known as a writer of hit songs made famous by others — played a set of more than 20 songs but sparked the crowd with his take of “Tennessee Whiskey,” a tune he didn’t write and that has been around for decades but which saw a rejuvenation when the bearded, soulful Stapleton dusted it off in 2015. Stapleton played “Tennessee Whiskey” at the end of his set Thursday and received a rousing response from an Alerus Center audience that likely numbered north of 15,000.
For anyone who didn’t listen to the radio or watch country music-related television from 2015 to about 2020, Stapleton’s take on “Tennessee Whiskey” is non-traditional in a country sense. Whereas past stars David Allen Coe and George Jones recorded the song in the drawling style common in early 1980s country music, Stapleton’s version is bluesy and honors a melody from Etta James’ 1967 “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
The song’s classic simplicity — only two short verses, laid over the top of a clean-channel guitar that emphasizes those low, meaningful notes at the top of the fretboard — allows Stapleton to highlight his vocal abilities and exceptional range.
“He’s old-school country,” said Danielle Osowski, a Grand Forks native who flew from Denver to attend Thursday’s concert. Osowski’s sister came from California for the show and they enjoyed a reunion with their parents at the concert.
She compared Stapleton to country greats Waylon Jennings, Porter Wagoner and Johnny Cash. Stapleton, she said, reminds her of “growing up, being with my grandparents, rides to the lake.”
Stapleton comes from Kentucky and, along with gaining fame for his own vocal talents, has earned acclaim as a songwriter, writing or co-writing hits for singers like Kenny Chesney ("Never Wanted Nothing More") and Luke Bryan ("Drink a Beer"). According to a piece titled “30-plus songs you didn’t know Chris Stapleton wrote” — published by theboot.com — he has full or shared songwriting credits for a number of songs recorded by others, including Joss Stone, Adele, George Strait, Darius Rucker and Tim McGraw.
He released the album “Traveler” in 2015, winning Country Music Association Album of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year and New Artist of the year.
Thursday, many of his songs were deliberately paced — maybe a bit faster than an old grandfather clock. The style differs somewhat from some of the other big country acts that have played the Alerus, and it gives fans a chance to better hear his award-winning vocals and lyrics.
“Hello, North Dakota. Thank you all for being with us,” Stapleton said after a few songs. “I’m not going to do a whole lot of talking tonight, but we’ll play as much music as we can in the time that we have.”
He still found time to visit with nearby fans and to sign a number of items between songs.
Stapleton’s stage was set like a nightclub, with little space between him and a five-person band that included his wife, Morgane, whose backing vocals were featured prominently throughout the night. Stapleton isn’t just a stand-out-front singer with a seldom-played rhythm guitar hanging from his neck, though — he played lead guitar throughout the evening, and the highlight probably was his extended Stevie Ray Vaughan-esque solo during “I Was Wrong.”
The night began with two opening acts: Morgan Wade and Elle King. King’s 2015 song “Ex’s & Oh’s” earned national popularity and made her a known name in the industry, although she didn’t perform it Thursday.
Stapleton started at 9:15 p.m. and played for two hours, opening with “Nobody to Blame,” “Parachute” and "Second One To Know" before taking a moment to visit with the crowd.
“I really like his music,” Heidi Thompson, of Grand Forks, said shortly before Stapleton took the stage. She complimented his abilities as a songwriter, but also as an artist.
“I haven’t heard him live, but I do listen to his music. I’m really looking forward to it.”