She’s got his back

Coun­try singer Chris Sta­ple­ton and his wife, Mor­gane, see eye to eye

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - JON CARAMANICA

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 was 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 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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

KYLE DEAN REINFORD, NYT

The visual and mu­si­cal dy­namic be­tween Chris and Mor­gane Sta­ple­ton is one of coun­try mu­sic’s great treats.

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