As stated in another outlet the first time this writer saw Chris Stapleton live was in a hotel room for a radio taping with his then band, The SteelDrivers, a dozen years ago. Drawn to his soulful voice, I had a feeling that he was destined for bigger things or at least a solo breakout. He left The SteelDrivers after their 2008 Reckless album and devoted most of his time writing songs for other country singers (a path that many take). Neither I nor most anyone else at that time could have envisioned the multiple Grammy and ACM Awards bestowed on him. Now, of course, he is a five-time Grammy, ten-time CMA, and seven-time ACM Award winner and one of America’s top artists in any genre. He set the bar high with the 2015’s Traveller and continues his high trajectory in 2017 with two releases, From a Room, Volume 1 and From a Room, Volume 2, both taking their name from Nashville’s renowned RCA Studio A. The bar can’t possibly be set any higher, so we are all anticipating what Stapleton will do next. Now we have that answer—Starting Over.
Stapleton returns with ace producer Dave Cobb and the same cast of backing musicians. Why argue with success? In addition to Stapleton on vocals and electric guitar, Cobb is on acoustic guitar, Chris’s wife Morgane Stapleton is on harmony vocals and his long-time rhythm duo of J.T. Cure on bass and Derek Mixon on drums return as well. As per usual he adds high profile guests, this time legendary Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell who also co-wrote a couple, Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and Nashville pedal steel master Paul Franklin.
But there are some changes. On his past albums, Stapleton wrote most of his songs with his SteelDrivers bandmate Mike Henderson, who is adept at multiple genres and has led his own Nashville-based blues band, the Bluebloods, for years. There’s only one of those here. In fact, Stapleton is the only writer on about half of these songs. Labeled as a country artist, Stapleton has a distinctively soulful voice you’ll hear the blues in both Stapleton’s voice and guitar work. As a result, Stapleton appeals to fans of Southern rock, outlaw country, Americana singer-songwriters, and even commercial country. He has the right combination of grit and natural delivery with straightforward, relatable lyrics and song subjects. The combination of these elements and a humble stance separates him from most of the other chart-topping artists.
Three singles have already been released – the title track, the stunner “Cold,” and most recently the rousing “Arkansas.” The title track, like the album recorded in February right before the pandemic, proves prescient as we’ve had to start over in so many ways – “This might not be an easy time/There’s rivers to cross/And hills to climb/And some days we might fall apart/ And some nights might feel cold and dark.” That’s the tune he wrote with Henderson. Others involve frequent and new collaborators as well as three covers – John Fogerty’s “Love of my Life,”(remarkable in how similar the two’s voices are), Guy Clark’s “Worry B Gone” and “Old Friends.” If there are themes to the album, there is love, leaving Nashville apparently as evidenced by the title track and the closing “Nashville, TN” – “So long Nashville TN/You can’t have what’s left of me/And as far as I can tell/It’s high time, I wish you well.”
Stapleton built his reputation on great songs and his powerful voice but his guitar playing is of note too – never too flashy but having a bluesman’s knack for hitting the right notes. Then there’s his tremolo, power-chord driven “Hillbilly Blood” showing his versatility. “Maggie’s Song” is about an abandoned puppy that he and Morgane rescued. While it might well be sappy in the hands of another artist, the combination of Chris and Morgane in harmony, backed in part by Benmont Tench’s wonderful keys, makes it one of the album’s standouts. He pours out his heart in the lament “Whiskey River,” his guitar cranking out ominous chords and anguished notes in the breaks, creating a completely opposite tone than “Maggie’s Song.”
Stapleton sequences the two Guy Clark covers back to back, beginning with the shuffling rave-up “Worry B Gone,” delivering yet another crunchy guitar lead. Again, he makes a radical shift in tone, turning to one of Clark’s most sensitive songs, rendering it in gorgeous harmony with Morgane as Tench adds the elegant piano and he again adds those “just right” guitar notes. “Watch You Burn’ is the co-write with Mike Campbell, decrying the mass shooting in Las Vegas and gun violence in general. Campbell plays electric guitar but stays restrained with the focus on the eight-person backing All Voices choir. In keeping with the pattern, he turns more gentle on “You Should Probably Leave” and on “Nashville, TN” which begins fondly but ends as if he’s gotten what he needs from the place and the Music City culture, ready to move on, rather quietly as the last notes are played.
Unlike the 2017 pair of albums which were rather short, Stapleton delivers a generous heaping of 14 songs here. He has nothing left to prove, but somehow, he just gets incrementally better as he takes more control and confidence in his own songwriting. This is as good as any of his albums and maybe just a tad better.
Photo by Becky Fluke