For all the industry awards, and accompanying record sales, that country sensation Chris Stapleton has gathered in the past year or so, you’d think he’d take the opportunity to expand the band he brings with him on the road. But when he took the stage at sundown on the final day of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, it was just Stapleton, his wife and backup singer Morgane Stapleton, drummer Derek Mixon and bassist J.T. Cure.
Turns out that was all he really needed. Even from way back beyond the mixing board — which was as close as you could get amid the jam-packed crowd that filled out the front area early — Stapleton sounded loud and proud, his spectacular voice carrying most of the weight on songs that blended down-and-dirty blues with Southern-fried rock ‘n’ roll and deep-rooted country twang.
Early on, he laid it on perhaps a bit too thick, with tunes such as “Nobody to Blame” and “Midnight Train to Memphis” stressing his gritty mean streak that flowed against the sunset’s feel-good vibe. Once he established that side of his identity, though, he eased up a bit, starting with a lovely yet still intense duet with his wife on the classic “You Are My Sunshine.”
His infrequent interaction with the crowd included a question early on: “Anybody out there drunk yet?” If they weren’t, he would help, serving up three rounds of songs about spirits. Chasing the early “Whiskey and You” with the “since I’m out of whiskey” lament “Might As Well Get Stoned,” he set the stage for the obvious set-closing “Tennessee Whiskey,” the song that broke him big when his album “Traveler” came out last year.
Still, the title song to that record, a comparatively folkish ramble with mission-statement lyrics, was probably the most enjoyable song of the night, with one possible exception: Leading into “Tennessee Whiskey,” Stapleton paid special tribute to his three bandmates by literally singing their introductions. Mentioning details such as their hometowns — Elkhorn City, Ky.; West Monroe, La. — and their musical chops (“like a man with a sawed-off shotgun”), he showed them great respect, especially his wife, “the love of my life.” And when she opened her mouth to sing, you could hear why.