Like much of the alt-country scene, Chris Stapleton‘s work is a high-stakes gamble, especially in the post-bro-country era. He’s the exception, not the rule. The crushing vulnerability spewing from his pen is equal parts chilling, devastating and emotionally-triggering. And his mighty voice is that of a serpent slithering across the parched desert floor in search of his prey: when he strikes (and he does so vehemently) you can feel it in every inch of flesh and bone. His 2015 solo debut record, the rustic and dusty Traveller, arrived to little mainstream fan fare and you wouldn’t expect that from the man who later completely burned Music Row to the ground. It wasn’t until a good six months later, when he paired up with pop juggernaut Justin Timberlake at the CMA Awards, that the general population caught wind of his mesmerizing presence. Warbling his way through the David Allan Coe standard “Tennessee Whiskey” (made famous by George Jones) and Timberlake’s soul-inspired “Drink You Away,” he shook the suits holed up in their fancy condos and glossy office fronts, leading him to collect numerous industry accolades in the fiery performance’s wake. His album has sold more than one million copies and spawned several gold-certified singles, to boot.
Stapleton did not buckle underneath the weight of added pressure or exposure, either. To the contrary, he dug his boots into the dirt and set to work on the follow-up. There were understandable qualms about the new music; the sophomore slump is a very real pandemic which plagues even the most consistent and accomplished musicians, from the Beatles to Liz Phair, The Strokes and Fiona Apple. No one is particularly immune to such a disease, which is owed in huge part to massive early success and complacency–many artists are guilty of falling off the mark, believing they can simply rehash their previous work to the same artistic and commercial mile markers. When it comes to this burly, sandpaper-voiced performer, he took the challenge with sheepish confidence, in his humble little way. From a Room: Volume 1 (the first half of his new project) calls to the outlaw movement of the ’60s and ’70s, when such pillars as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard (among others) shattered the Nashville Sound in favor of returning the genre to its roots.
Stapleton’s cover of Nelson’s “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” (found on Nelson’s 1982 record Always on My Mind) is the most obvious homage to country’s scruffiest, dare-devilish outlaws. The original passes through the slinky filter of soul, hinged with startlingly clear piano and smooth guitar–Stapleton pays tribute by mostly adhering to the thunderous arrangement, redecorating the strength of the instruments (harmonica plays a more prominent role) and, of course, the delicate dance of his voice with his wife and musician Morgane Stapleton’s.
He plays joyfully and colorfully with genre confines, as best he can with such downhearted, weighty material, from the crestfallen ode to damaged musicians who aspire for the major label allure only to be crushed with reality (on the “Broken Halos” opener) to the swampy closer, “Death Row.” The latter is a burdensome recollection of an inmate’s final and most intimate thoughts. “I already told Jesus everything I know,” he wails, over sinisterly woven electric guitar and percussion that mimics his fading heartbeat. And later, “Tell my baby I love her so,” he whispers, before he confesses to keeping a calendar of his last days, a rather affecting admission. The one-minute-plus instrumental outro serves as the bookend to his life, as he presumably undergoes the needle or the electric chair. Those minor details are unclear, but it certainly leaves one helluva mark.
Elsewhere, Stapleton rollicks with the best of them–as he does expertly with the searing blister of “Second One to Know” or with his smokey marijuana moment “Them Stems”–and reigns in the honky-tonk romp for intimacy. “Either Way,” his new radio single, is just him and a guitar: his voice has never sounded so cutting and impassioned. Then, “Up to No Good Livin'” cries as feverishly as an Alan Jackson tune, and “I Was Wrong” displaces rock and country for blinding blues, a number which sits back on the ear and sneaks up on the listener. Before you know it, his cracked, torn voice hits you squarely between the eyes. Recorded inside RCA Studio A, the former haunt of such prolific trailblazers as Nelson and Waylon Jennings, the album was produced by Dave Cobb, who’s worked with everyone from A Thousand Horses to Jason Isbell and Corb Lund, and witnesses Stapleton conjuring up the spirt of such definitive albums as Red Headed Stranger and Haggard’s Serving 190 Proof or Back to Barrooms. The needle of country music has drastically shifted the past two years, and thanks to Stapleton, the format is far richer than it ever has in a very, very long time.
Must-Listen Tracks: “Broken Halos,” “Second One to Know,” “Either Way,” “Death Row”