Chris Stapleton emerged to national prominence exactly two years ago with the release of his solo debut album, Traveller. To many, his success with a back to basics style of country music marked a sea change in how the mainstream world would perceive the genre. After years of being dominated by pop acts masquerading as country, Stapleton’s brand, a mix of the earworm values of modern Nashville, including, yes, pop and rock, with the foundations of country’s outlaw tradition, showed that real country is still palatable and marketable. Of course, this is fundamentally a lie because Traveller itself was a move towards pop for Stapleton, who had cut his teeth on traditional bluegrass with former band the Steeldrivers, loaning out his more “pop” compositions to artists like Adele. Stapleton’s ascension is less a re-embracing of traditional country and more Stapleton playing the master manipulator – the “man who can do both.” Somehow Traveller satisfied everyone, no small feat in the country music world today. From a Room: Volume 1 largely picks up where Traveller left off in that respect.
From a Room follows many of the same patterns and formulas that worked for Stapleton on Traveller. Booze-soaked acoustic ballads like “Either Way” are spiritual successors to Traveller’s “Whiskey and You.” Hell, those two might as well be the same song. “Second One to Know” rocks out like Traveller’s “Parachute.” “Up to No Good Livin’” is your requisite shit-kicking outlaw track. Stapleton isn’t repeating himself though so much as establishing and reinforcing his brand. Those hoping for a second helping of what made Traveller great won’t be disappointed.
But Stapleton has a smart approach to his success. He recognizes his fans and what they’re looking for while simultaneously stretching his legs in a more subtle way. Where “Second One to Know” might fulfill a similar purpose in the track listing to “Parachute,” it’s much more of a straight forward rocker. Quite frankly, “Second One to Know” wouldn’t sound out of place on a record by a classic rock band. It’s not Stapleton straying too far out of his wheelhouse, but he’s also challenging his fans to allow him to grow.
Similarly, his take on “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning,” the album’s lone cover song and a song originally made famous by Willie Nelson, is more blues tinged and would have fit right in on Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. In fact, Bob is probably mad he didn’t think of it first. Similarly, “Death Row” goes straight in with gorgeous blues rock guitar playing, echoing Hendrix at points and mirroring Traveller’s pure blues closer “Sometimes I Cry.” Stapleton’s not challenging country fans with tracks like these. He’s simply saying he doesn’t care to be their savior. He’s acting on his own whims first.
Stapleton could easily have been overwhelmed by his own rapid success. Indeed, the two years it took for From a Room to arrive to us seemed to indicate he didn’t quite know where to go next. When you’re anointed after only one record as the forerunner of modern country music, how do you manage to follow up without falling on your face? From a Room definitely tackles that question safely, but strongly. If From a Room has a failing, it’s that Traveller came as a such a shock two years ago that its successor isn’t going to surprise in the same way. That being said, the songwriting and performing is every bit Traveller’s equal, proving Stapleton has more than enough in his overwhelmingly powerful voice and songwriting bag of tricks to keep pleasing fans for years to come.