An original who writes as well as he sings as well as he plays guitar whose pure, honest approach to country music has pounded the slick, monolithic Nashville sound like a pile driver.
Sound like anyone you know?
If Chris Stapleton reminds Bakersfield of Merle Haggard, he should. Stapleton is the freshest, most electrifying guy in country music today. Haggard was the freshest, most electrifying guy in country music for decades.
But the similarity is more in the attitude, the artistry, than the sound.
Haggard the vocalist was one of economy. Stapleton goes for broke. Haggard could devastate as much by holding back as by sending that gloriously mournful baritone to its lowest register. Stapleton’s bluesy, powerhouse delivery drowns out a theater of noisy “We love you, Chris!” drunks. Stapleton’s voice reveals all its tricks, and there are plenty. Haggard, possessed of an equally supple and robust instrument in his youth, often was spare.
But back to the attitude. And what an attitude.
Bakersfield can spot it — the fearlessness, the audacity verging on insolence — because we’ve seen it before. Fans lucky enough to have scored tickets to Stapleton’s sold-out show at Rabobank Theater on Friday saw it again.
It was the closest thing we’ve had in Bakersfield to a public sendoff of our favorite son, and it was courtesy of Stapleton, the Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter who is swinging the pendulum of the genre from bro bravado to soulful grit and tradition (with a mighty assist from others like Eric Church and a multitude of smart, brash young women fighting for airplay on male-centric country radio).
Make no mistake: Fans — most of whom looked like the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Bakersfield Sound bar-hoppers — came not to mourn Haggard but to adore Stapleton. Their 40-ounce cans outstretched in a Bakersfield salute, the 3,000 or so music lovers roared as Stapleton took the stage with his band, which includes wife Morgane Stapleton on background vocals and Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael.
Stapleton started with the hit “Nobody to Blame” from his breakthrough 2015 album, “Traveller.” The staging was minimal — just a half-dozen illuminated orbs behind him. But with a voice and magnetism that commands the room, you don’t need laser shenanigans or videos playing on a screen; truth be told, you don’t even have to move that much. You just have to be Chris Stapleton.
Like his musical heroes Haggard and Willie Nelson, he keeps the between-song chit-chat to a minium. He left it to his wife to address the boisterous crowd.
“That’s a helluva welcome to Bakersfield,” Mrs. Stapleton said.
Six songs in, they brought out the upright bass and acoustic guitar for what would be a two-song tribute to Haggard, whose April 6 death is still an open wound here. When the Stapletons harmonized on “Silver Wings,” the sense of emotional release among the legend’s hometown fans was palpable.
“Everybody stand for Merle!” a guy shouted from down front.
“That was for the Hag,” Stapleton said before duetting with his wife — a lovely, delicate vocalist — on “Today I Started Loving You Again.”
Stapleton pivoted back to his own music with “Might As Well Get Stoned,” an appropriate segue considering one of Haggard’s last singles, with pal and fellow toker Nelson, was “It’s All Going to Pot.” Though he did perform with Haggard once, Stapleton didn’t get much of a chance to talk to his hero. But he did get a souvenir of the encounter.
“He rolled me up a joint. I didn't smoke it. I still got it!”
Beyond his own material and the two Haggard classics, Stapleton covered Tom Petty, Lynyrd Skynryd (“Free Bird,” man) and Waylon Jennings, who among the old-guard of country music hell-raisers seems to have influenced Stapleton most in voice, style and vibe.
A favorite of the night was Stapleton’s cover of “Tennessee Whiskey,” a novelty of a love song elevated to a honky-tonk classic of devotion by its most gifted interpreter, the late George Jones.
In the hands of a less-gifted vocalist, it would be hubris to take on giants like Haggard, Jones and Jennings. But damned if Stapleton doesn’t pull it off.
The audience was raucous and loud but fairly well-behaved, the bellowed expressions of love from overcome boozers notwithstanding. But Stapleton took it in stride, even mid-song.
“You win the drunkest guy in the audience award, sir,” he said amiably, despite the interruption.