Like many country music artists, Chris Stapleton had already co-written several hit songs for and with artists like Kenny Chesney and George Strait before launching a solo career with his very successful debut, 2015’s Traveller. While his country music bona fides have been locked down tight since day one, Stapleton’s soulful tenor voice and bluesy guitar slinger abilities have tended to broaden his appeal beyond the Americana and Outlaw Country labels, leading to invites to open shows for The Eagles, Guns ‘N’ Roses, and three shows toward the end of Tom Petty’s 40th Anniversary Tour with the Heartbreakers. That introduction has led to a friendship with Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell, who co-writes a couple here with Stapleton, while both he and keyboardist Benmont Tench do special guest turns in the studio.
Stapleton opens his fourth album with the title track, a simple acoustic-focused country pop song about “Starting Over,” but if anything this 14 track album isn’t a fresh start so much as a further testament to the artist’s versatility and seemingly bottomless potential both in and beyond his chosen genre. That’s made all too obvious when he follows it with the bluesy electric tones of “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice,” where Stapleton’s raspy vocal echoes Southern rockers like Gregg Allman and Ronnie Van Zandt of Lynyrd Skynyrd. But of course, like any artist with wide influences and a penchant for touching all the bases over the course of one project, you get a whole wide swath of material whether that’s your preference or not. So, we get the 70’s country throwback, “Cold,” where Stapleton and ace producer Dave Cobb attempt to rework a country formula that added orchestra backing to ill effect, but it’s followed by “When I’m With You,” where we hear just how beautiful a simple, more natural approach can feel, with the singer in traditional George Jones’ mode.
Similarly, Stapleton pays tribute to the late Guy Clark with the fun, roadhouse blues feel of “Worry B Gone,” followed by the patron saint Outlaw Country’s tribute to friendship and camaraderie, “Old Friends.” As for Stapleton’s newer friends, he’s written two serious rockers with Heartbreaker Campbell, the fun rocker “Arkansas,” and the angry, darker statement about violent terrorism, “Watch You Burn.” Cobb and Stapleton punctuate the righteous indignation over the notorious mass shooting at the Vegas country music festival while name checking the letter bomber and a synagogue shooter, with the backing of a Gospel choir. But the natural sweet spot for Stapleton seems to be the easy, organic yet smartly crafted work of a love song like “Joy of My Life,” and an ode to a beloved dog, “Maggie’s Song,” with a musical nod to The Band’s classic “The Weight,” with Benmont Tench sitting in to add his Hammond B3 warmth.
“Hillbilly Blood” and “Whiskey Sunrise” touch on classic country values, but again Stapleton’s superior vocals and guitar playing lift these tracks above the usual fare you might take for granted. And, Stapleton closes the record with two sweet but sad songs of farewell, the R&B backbeat of “You Should Probably Leave,” and the pedal steel whiner about failing in the industry that made it’s home in “Nashville, TN,” something that couldn’t be further from the experience of Stapleton. It works as the story of a town where so many plant their hopes and dreams only end up broke and brokenhearted. It’s a move that the best country, blues and rock songwriters have long mastered, turning their exceptional talent toward the everyday experiences and struggles of common folk. Beyond his obvious musical skills, Stapleton’s appeal comes largely from the ability to maintain that honest connection.
Key Tracks: “Starting Over” / “Joy of My Life” / “Maggie’s Song”
Artists With Similar Fire: Steve Earle / Willie & Lucas Nelson / Sturgill Simpson
Chris Stapleton Review History: From A Room: Volume 1 (2017)
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb