In one sense, Christopher Paul Stelling is always ready to tour. He drives a Ford Transit van with a lofted bed in the back, and bins of albums, shirts and buttons beneath, along with a makeshift lounge behind the front seats.
“I got that with 25,000 miles on it, it’s got 155,000, I got it in 2017 and I didn’t tour last year,” he said. “You kinda use vehicles like Kleenex.”
On this day, he’s pulled the van into the parking lot of Summit Coffee in the River Arts District and walked to a nearby picnic table to talk about the path to his newest record, “Forgiving it All.” Stelling launches the album Sept. 25 at the Grey Eagle in Asheville.
Through six albums, relentless and opportune touring, a high-profile collaboration and sustained sobriety—all over the past decade—Stelling’s become one of Asheville’s better-known singer-songwriters.
“It’s kind of a fool’s errand to think of this as a career. You have to think of it, if it’s going to work mentally, as a privilege and a thing you’re invited to participate in,” he said. “You’re always in a state of earning it and earning it again.”
Stelling grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., and he returned there last year, to his grandmother’s house, emptied after her death, to record what would become the intimate and introspective “Forgiving it All.”
“I mean, this was a house that held a lot of memories for generations of my family, and a lot of pain and a lot of energy and emotion,” he recalled. “So it was really special for me to be able to go there alone, set up and record these songs.”
Stelling has earned his fans by threading the needle of country blues influences such as Mississippi John Hurts, Skip James, Son House and Bukka White and the staples of American folk, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Without music, his lyrics stand a la carte as wry poetry wrought with personal discovery and socio-political observation.
“There’s a channel in there somewhere in the brain that when a turn of phrase kind of emotionally resonates with you, it rings a bell,” he said. “There’s kind of a convergence of a feeling, a turn of phrase and possibly a musical idea, they all kind of come together and one feels compelled to chase that down a hole and hopefully bring back something lasting.”
In 2016, Ben Harper invited Stelling to open shows for him at some of the most iconic concert halls in North America, exposing Stelling to new fans and wider critical acclaim. Harper produced Stelling’s album “Best of Luck,” which came out a month before the start of the pandemic.
“He had just gotten sober soon before that too, and I was definitely inspired by that, and I just knew (my sobriety) had to happen,” Stelling said. “I felt like going into that project, I needed to be in a little more of a vulnerable place and a little more possession of my faculties. When you get sober, people love to ask you how you feel. It’s not great, it’s everything. I feel everything. I feel good and bad and ugly and unhealthy and healthy and great all at once. That kinda makes a certain emotional pallet available to you.”
In 2006, Stelling followed friend and graffiti artist Dustin Spagnola to Asheville, but two years later found himself busking on the streets and subways of New York City. He returned to Asheville with his partner in 2017. With his touring van at the ready, Stelling is still cautious about the changing nature of the pandemic and is choosing to only book small clusters of shows at a time.
“My partner and I definitely miss the no-holds-barred attitude of the city. That fed me for a long time, just like whiskey fed me for a long time, but this is a bit more healthier,” Stelling said. “I sure am glad I was here for the past year and a half. We’ve gotten older. We have dogs now.”