FRANKLIN, Tenn. — At a Chris Stapleton concert, there is incendiary singing, rich celebrations of country music tradition and, most important, the eye thing.
It happens frequently onstage when that country singer and his wife, Morgane, face each other, not the crowd, and hold each other’s gaze for seconds, sometimes minutes. It is a shocking reframing of live performance. Even though the show is technically Stapleton’s, with Morgane Stapleton singing backup, and even though there is an audience rapturously watching, often it feels as if the whole room is reduced to wordless, loving conversation between two people.
“We’re married so we hold each other accountable,” Chris Stapleton said last month on the family ranch in this unassuming town 30 minutes and several light-years south of Music Row in Nashville. “We can lift each other up on bad nights, kind of give each other a wink when we screw up or do something funny.”
The dynamic between the two is one of country’s great treats, a vivid display of affection that elevates their music. It also creates a showcase for Morgane Stapleton, who, over a decade ago, was an aspiring country star with a record deal of her own. Her harmonies are some of the most affecting parts of “From a Room: Volume 1,” Chris Stapleton’s second solo album, which will be released Friday, two years after “Traveller,” his debut, which went platinum and earned him two Grammys, five Country Music Association awards and the somewhat unexpected role of high-profile vintage country preservationist.
Like “Traveller,” “From a Room” is earthen, rich with tradition, has a tactile intensity and is carefully measured. It’s full of songs about romantic disappointment and people letting each other down, often with the Stapletons singing in devastating harmony, like on “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” and “Up to No Good Livin’.”
“Traveller” kick-started Chris Stapleton’s solo career (after years in bands, and one false solo start) and, as a bonus, revived his wife’s as well.
The two met in 2003. Both were songwriters who plied their trade in adjacent buildings, and Morgane Stapleton was close friends with the woman responsible for pushing Chris Stapleton’s songs to singers who might record them. After a few months, he asked if she’d like to write a song together. She proposed Friday at 6 p.m., a time when not much songwriting gets done. Four years later, they were married. They have two children, now 6 and 8.
When they met, Morgane Stapleton was signed to the label Arista Nashville under her maiden name, Morgane Hayes. “I think the label was looking for Gretchen Wilson, the total package — a crazy talented woman, who could write great songs and sing the hell out of them,” she said. “I was still trying to find my voice.”
Though she recorded about three albums’ worth of songs, she never formally released any music. Her Myspace page survives, revealing a tender-voiced singer with sass and a dark streak. (Check out the wry “We Just Talk About It” and the bitter “We Tried.” She sang demos for $60 a pop (until someone told her she could charge $125), and backed up Lee Ann Womack on tour. She had some success as a songwriter, including on Carrie Underwood’s “Don’t Forget to Remember Me,” which went to No. 2 on the Billboard country songs chart.
Though Morgane Stapleton played her own shows occasionally, she hated the spotlight. As a young singer, she performed with her sister, but standing out in front, alone, unnerved her: “I broke out in hives one time — I don’t remember why. I have an aversion to the spotlight. It’s not for everybody.”
Then, as now, the Stapletons shared the stage, though then it was Chris Stapleton backing her on guitar. “He definitely gave me a boost of ‘you can do this’ — not because he said it, but just because he was standing with me,” she said. But Chris Stapleton wasn’t seeking the limelight, either. “I think it’s why he’s always got a beard, he’s always got long hair.”
She asked to be released from her record contract, and for years largely avoided the stage. Before “Traveller,” she occasionally joined Chris Stapleton’s set, but during the tour for that album, her presence became more frequent, and more integral.
“I don’t remember the moment, but I remember feeling like I can’t miss this anymore,” she said. Now when the Stapletons tour, it is as a family, with Morgane Stapleton’s mother home-schooling the children. “When we weren’t taking the kids, I always felt like I couldn’t win,” she said. “I was always in the wrong place.”
Now, the show is incomplete without their interplay, Chris Stapleton’s lionesque roar against her rustic balm.
“I was singing with Chris long before he knew I was singing with him,” she said, remembering how she would ask his publishing representative for “volumes of his songs, CDs of everything he’d ever written up until that point, and I would take them home and study and sing along.”
And she is a major driving force in his song selection. “From a Room” is made up of songs written many years ago, drawn from a 1,000-deep catalog. (Part 2 of the album is due this year.)
“She is such a great litmus,” said Dave Cobb, Chris Stapleton’s producer. “She has a huge input on what becomes the sound of the record.”
Morgane Stapleton recently released one song where she is credited first (alongside her husband): a scintillating, bluesy cover of “You Are My Sunshine,” on a compilation by Cobb. “They light each other up,” Cobb said. “He knows that when she walks in the room, he’s got to make it better.”
The trust runs both ways. “I don’t have to be medicated anymore to get onstage,” she said. “I used to be so afraid that I would have to take beta blockers so I wouldn’t shake.” Though Morgane Stapleton has no specific plans to release more music under her name, “recently we’ve had a few conversations of, ‘Hey, what would that be?’” she said. “Just casual conversation, really.”
If it happens, it will certainly be with Chris Stapleton at her side, probably with eyes fixed on each other.
“As much as I can talk about him being a comfort to me, I think in that way I also am a comfort to him,” she said. “We can look at each other and know, ‘OK, I got you.’”