I have written several articles about when artists return home to Kentucky, but in my lifetime, none will likely be bigger than Chris Stapleton playing Rupp Arena. As a fellow Eastern Kentuckian, Rupp Arena to us, is like the Ryman. It’s our Mother Church. It’s an arena named after Coach Adolph Rupp and is the home of our beloved Kentucky Wildcats in downtown Lexington. For a Kentucky artist, that was born in this city, to rise in popularity and be able to sell-out over 17,000 seats at Rupp Arena is unheard of. Unchartered territory, even.
The Kentucky Headhunters, Billy Ray Cyrus, The Backstreet Boys featured a couple Kentuckians, John Michael Montgomery and Montgomery Gentry had some great success. But Chris Stapleton is the only singular artist to have sold-out Rupp Arena as a headliner to be born in Lexington. At least to my knowledge.
What makes that even more sweet, is Chris isn’t the only Kentuckian making a homecoming. I interviewed bassist J.T. Cure earlier this year about producing the newest album from The Wooks, you can read that here. J.T. is from Elkhorn City and he told me that he has been waiting on this day for over a year. I was willing to bet that a little rain did nothing to put a damper on these fellas homecoming.
But before we get into their performance, we must talk a bit about two other acts. First up was Georgia native, Brent Cobb. Like many others, Brent first came on my radar as the nephew of my favorite producer, Dave Cobb. Dave has worked with several Kentuckians, including Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and on the newly released debut album of Dillon Carmichael.
Dave Cobb also, and obviously, has worked with his cousin Brent. Brent has released two albums on Low Country Sound, which is an imprint and creative partnership between Dave Cobb and Elektra Records.
Brent Cobb performed twice on Saturday. He did an acoustic set and in-store signing at CD Central in Lexington, which you can watch a few songs of below. Thanks to Matt Wickstrom and his site, Big Blue Tunes. Brett then opened the show tonight at Rupp Arena.
Brent’s Rupp Arena set was 45 minutes, which is really good for him. A lot of tour openers only get a 25 minute slot, so that extra 20 minutes allowed Brent to win some folks over. Brent definitely did just that and made the most of his opportunity. While their set wasn’t anything crazy to watch, their harmonies and musicianship were second to none and many folks walked away asking just who this Georgia boy was.
From the opening harmonies of “Diggin’ Holes”, Lexington knew what they were in for and gave Brent a warm welcome to our Commonwealth. Not that Brent needed any help winning folks over, but when he decided to throw in a Dwight Yoakam classic, “Guitars, Cadillacs”, that’s when the party hit the gas and Lexington ate out of Brent and the bands hands for the remainder of their set and rightfully so.
On a personal note, I was glad to experience “King Of Alabama” live. That’s definitely a favorite for me.
Next up was a gentleman, that in my humble opinion, belongs in the Country Music Hall Of Fame, Mr. Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. Marty Stuart is a showman. Plain and simple. With his band decked out in Porter Wagner style matching suits, Marty chose to wear black. My guess is that is a hat tip to his old friend, Mr. Johnny Cash.
The Superlatives also happens to be the home of one of my favorite and most versatile guitarists in Mr. Kenny Vaughan. I first saw Kenny do a solo show years ago at the old location of Willie’s Locally Known. Mr. Justin Wells and his old band, Fifth On The Floor were also playing that night. Kenny blew me away with his playing style and ability to fill the room with so many different sounds. Especially since it was just Kenny and his guitar.
While Marty Stuart is the main draw, Kenny had his opportunities to shine and I couldn’t have been happier about that.
Marty and the Superlatives delighted the Rupp Arena crowd with songs that spanned his entire career and even a few covers. Songs like “Lesson in Love”, Marty’s massive hit with Travis Tritt, “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'”, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, Merle Haggard’s classic, “Mama Tried”, and even the Woody Guthrie classic, “Pretty Boy Floyd”. But the moment that flipped the switch on the partying came when the band broke into the Ralph Stanley classic, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” 17,000 people, many of which were drunk on $9 beers, collectively lost their minds. Oh what a moment for a people watcher like myself. Good times!!
On a side note, I wasn’t able to shoot Marty’s set as thoroughly as I’d like, as a pretty vicious fight broke out right behind me. I had to simply get out of the way for security to do their job and to protect my equipment.
After a brief delay, it was now time for the moment that every single heart beat in Rupp Arena was there for. Kentucky’s current King of Country Music came home to the city he was born in to do his best to burn down that Rupp Arena stage.
The excitement truly felt like electricity in the air and when the music stopped playing as the house lights went dark, Rupp Arena exploded in what was likely the loudest roar that I have ever witnessed. It was a moment that Chris has worked his entire life for and 17,000 people were there to help him celebrate. What. A. Freaking. Moment. I still have chills!
We all know and love the music that Mr. Stapleton has given us. So I’m going to make this article more so about specific moments that I KNOW meant the world to Chris and his band.
Before they played “Fire Away”, Chris asked anyone and everyone that had a cell phone or a lighter or anything that created light, to hold them up so he could see the faces of every single person in attendance. Rupp was more than happy to oblige him and as you can see by the phone shot from my cousin Sondra below, it was an absolutely beautiful moment.
The next moment, that even Chris said could only happen at Rupp Arena, was when Chris saw a sign about a man’s tattoo. He eventually invited the gentleman on stage where he hiked up his shorts to reveal a MASSIVE portrait tattoo of Chris high on his left thigh.
Chris was amused, slightly disturbed, yet totally honored in all of about 1.3 seconds.
This show was the last show together before Halloween. Many in the crew were decked out in costumes and that fun carried over into the show as Chris invited Brent Cobb back onstage to help him perform “Might As Well Get Stoned”. With Brent was his bass player, who was only referred to as “Big Fuzzy”. He was wearing a blonde wig and huge cowboy hat clearly dressed up as Chris Stapleton.
He wasn’t the only one I’d like to add. There was a gentleman at the far end of our row that was a dead ringer for Chris. So much so, that according to our friend Matt Wickstrom, when he showed up at Brent Cobb’s acoustic performance earlier that afternoon, Brent made the statement, “Oh look, Chris came down to our show.” Totally unaware it wasn’t Chris until after the show.
Chris finally took a moment to address the crowd and the importance of such a monumental moment in his career. He spoke about attending his first concert at Rupp Arena, which was Bon Jovi back in 1987. He went on to say that never in his wildest dreams did he think that he would ever even play at Rupp Arena, and that selling it out was nearly unimaginable. He thanked everyone for being a part of such a special night before he invited Marty Stuart up to perform a couple of songs with the band.
Marty Stuart quipped, “I’ve had 1200 people say they were your cousin, Chris.” To which Stapleton replied, “Everybody in here probably is my cousin.” Together they performed Marty’s hit “Now That’s Country” and covered the Waylon Jennings classic, “Ain’t Living Long Like This”. It was clear that Chris was enjoying himself and wanted to share the night with his friends.
Chris brought Morgane back out for an absolutely beautiful performance of the Steeldrivers, “Rainbows Never Die”. He followed that up, standing alone on the stage, by performing “Whiskey & You”. One of my personal favorite Stapleton songs. Many have recorded it and several have released it, but none can perform it more powerfully.
The crowd nearly blow the roof off of Rupp Arena once the band returned to the stage and broke into “Broken Halo”. I think it is safe to say that this song drew the largest sing-a-long on the night, up to that point at least.
For me though, the absolute greatest moment of the night came during the performance of “Traveller”. The title track of Stapleton’s debut solo album was the moment that the crowd got to thank Chris for being there. With the house lights up, the crowd sang last verse back to Chris, sand music. I was immediately covered in chill bumps from head to toe. In fact, as I write this, I’m once again looking like I have chicken skin as I remember that beautiful moment.
On a personal note, my favorite Stapleton songs are often his most simplistic in their instumentation. The reason? Glad you asked. Because it forces Chris to make his voice truly be the star. Case in point, the band performed “I Was Wrong” as a three piece and Chris delivered his most spirited performance of the night, which was stacked with amazing performances. Look, Stapleton could likely sing the phone book and it would win a Grammy. He’s just that damn talented.
Chris sang a little of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” as the introduction into “Devil Named Music” and then he sold some Ram trucks, whoops, I meant he performed the very powerful, “Parachute” while may in attendance were his choir.
Now, if you’ve never seen Chris Stapleton in concert, allow me to fill ya in a bit. Before they break completely into “Tennessee Whiskey”, the band plays a slowed down version while Chris introduces the band. This is where you finally see the real Chris Stapleton. He’s funny, he’s charming and you can tell that he genuinely loves those around him.
His introduction to fellow Kentuckian, and Mountain Arts Center alumnus, J.T. Cure was a truly fun one as he told the crowd that J.T. was from Elkhorn City and has two cats at home. He goes on to say he’s a sensitive man that can also do your taxes. Which is very true, as J.T. is a certified accountant who still practices to this day. It was very playful, but it was as genuine as you could ever ask for. These two have played music together for many, many years and this night was huge for both of them and this exchange is one that I know I’ll never forget.
After the introductions, Chris and the band proceeded to quite simply, kick your ass sonically with 17,000 people singing backing vocals to the David Allen Coe song that put Stapleton on the map in “Tennessee Whiskey”. Now that’s one helluva way to end the night, but this is Rupp Arena. The band simply couldn’t walk away that simply.
Nope, an encore was all but demanded by the sold-out crowd and thankfully for us, Chris and the band were happy to oblige.
They came back out for a two song encore that included Chris’s version of the Charlie Daniels classic, “Was It 26” and ended with “Outlaw State Of Mind.” Chris ended the night by providing some feedback on his guitar and letting it ring out as he walked off stage with a wave and a head nod and just like that, a night that Chris had been working towards his entire adult life was now a part of his history and I was absolutely honored to be a witness.
I hope you enjoy what we do here at Capture Kentucky, and until next time, remember to support the artists or lose the art.