You’ve got to admit it — there’s something arresting about outlaw country music singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton. And 72,011 Houston Rodeo fans did Thursday night. You could tell from their hoots, hollers, whoops and whistles before and after each and every song.

It could be Stapleton’s gravelly growl, or his nuanced, focused lyrics — brevity is the soul of wit for this soul singer — it’s hard to tell. But for the second year in the row, Stapleton shot Space City fans through the stratosphere.

And he started off as strong as he finished. The crowd couldn’t believe it when the stage’s lights first came on and the tunesmith started belting out his hit “Broken Halos,” a country-rock testament to tragedy.

It’s one of Stapleton’s most popular songs since his meteoric rise to fame in 2015, when he went from relative dark horse to heavyweight headliner.  The revered musician, both a critic favorite and commercial success, sang that first, unexpected song in sweet harmony with his wife, Morgane.

That stripped-down composition and poignant lyrics are just one reason Stapleton’s been heralded as a sort of revivalist. A vintage, authentic king of old-school country. There are frequent comparisons between Stapleton’s blues-tinged sound and the more pop-inflected country streaming over the radio waves today.

But here’s the thing about the humble singer: he’s had a hand in writing those very types of country songs, from Luke Bryan’s “Drink a Beer” to Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn.”

As they say — get you a man that can do both.

It was those years of penning other people’s hits that led to the definition of his music and the release of his debut solo album, “Traveller,” and the following two that he brought to life at Rodeo Houston.

Stapleton kicked off “Hard Livin’” with a roguish smile, on a stage lit bright red, raising his eyebrows up higher and higher as he plucked at his guitar, decked out in a black button-down, black jeans, a cream-colored cowboy hat and that prodigious beard.

“Nobody to Blame” had everyone tapping their feet and bobbing their heads. It started off very dark, with a single spotlight center stage.

It gave NRG Stadium the kind of intimate feel you’d have seen at an early-days Chris Stapleton show more than five years ago —only you wouldn’t have seen it, because you wouldn’t have even known about it.

The former ACM Awards Song of The Year picked up, Stapleton howling “I know right where I went wrong, I know just what got her gone. Turned my life into this country song.”

There’s something sweet seeing a husband croon a kinda-sorta bashful breakup song with the help of his own wife’s vocals and gentle tambourine-tapping. Stapleton’s wife Morgane, who is pregnant with their fifth child, joined him on the big Rodeo stage.

Their chemistry throughout the night was really something to behold, with the twinkle in his eye for “More of You.” You’d have believed they were the only two people in the room.

chris stapleton 2 (Photo by F. Carter Smith )
Chris Stapleton and his wife Morgane turned the Houston Rodeo into a love story. (Photo by F. Carter Smith )

But before it came to his one true love, it was about his 70,000-plus fans. “How we doin’, Houston, Texas?” Stapleton called out, his speaking voice every bit as smooth as “Tennessee Whiskey.”

Hits and Whiskey

Cheers erupted at the start of “Traveller,” one of the early songs that put him on the map. Stapleton may have sung “When I’m gone, somebody else will have to feel this wrong. Somebody else will have to sing this song, somebody else will have to sing along,” but everyone was right there singing along already.

People got pumped up when the five-time Grammy’s winner dove into “Parachute,” another off of his debut album. It’s possibly the epitome of his “less-is-more” lyrical approach, with his spare words lending plenty of weight.

“You only need a roof when it’s raining, you only need a fire when it’s cold, you only need a drink when the whiskey’s the only thing that you have left to hold.” Houston sang along.

Stapleton went from gritty to sentimental in a heartbeat, shifting into “Millionaire” next, eyes trained on his wife. But once again, he had to check on the crowd. “Light ‘em up, Mac! Let me look at ‘em!” Stapleton shouted as the stadium’s spotlights lit up over the crowd.

The crowd cheered and clapped, loving the attention. It was time again for a gentle sing-along, people swaying in their seats and singing “that make me a millionaire.”

Things took a turn for the intense with “Outlaw State of Mind.” The stage once again turned to a deep red and Stapleton turned bad to the bone, calling out about cuttin’ his teeth on his daddy’s old LGO.

The Houston Rodeo crowd was eating it up, but it turned into a jam session more than anything, Stapleton and his wife turning to face the rest of the musicians and throw their whole bodyweight into the music for the song’s unapologetic five-and-a-half-minute runtime.

“Might As Well Get Stoned” was the logical next step, of course. But that wasn’t the song we were all waiting for.

No, if one of the most treasured hits came first, we’d have to wait a good long while to hear the other favorite. And we did. “Tennessee Whiskey” came in last, and only after quite the build up.

The first few chords rang out and immediately cellphones went up from all over the stadium. “Is everybody havin’ a good time? I said, is everybody havin’ a good time?” Stapleton sang out, making the queries sound every bit like the intro to a legitimate song.

“I wanna hear you sing yeah, yeah yeah,” Stapleton called, and the crowd did. “Sing it, yeah, yeah yeah. Do it again, yeah, yeah, yeah,” he sang sweetly.

“That’s right people, you sound good. Just like I knew you would,” he glided over the words, pausing only to chuckle.

Stapleton Gives the Band Love

It was time to introduce the band backing him. “We’re ’bout to have some fun.”

First up, in the poetic preface: bassist J.T. Cure. “And ladies, I said ladies, he’s got two cats at home. He sure does. And they miss him when he’s gone. He’s a sensitive man, look at all he can do with his sensitive hands — I’m laughing because I’m having too much fun. He’s going to kill me later.”

chris stapleton bassist (Photo by F. Carter Smith )
Bassist J.T. Cure is a sensitive man. (Photo by F. Carter Smith )

Drummer Derek Mixon was up next, “just like a man with a sawed-off shotgun, y’all. You people know what I’m talking ‘bout in Texas. He’s also a brother of mine.”

Then, a “living legend tonight” and “the world leading endorser of great propel water,” pedal-steel player Paul Franklin, “a bad, bad man.”

“Last but not least, she’s the beauty that tames this beast. All the time. Listen to me. People, she’s mine lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely wife. People, she’s the love of my life,” he sang straight to Morgane while the crowd cheered.

“Now, let’s drink some whiskey. Y’all ready to drink some whiskey? Yeah, here we go now!”

The fun wasn’t over yet. His voice rose and fell over the notes of “Tennessee Whiskey,” the perfect end to the night.

Stapleton’s Houston Rodeo performance, like his albums, was an instant classic.