Chris Stapleton is not here to be a savior for country music, something his recent release From a Room: Volume 1 makes clear as soon as “Broken Halos” is over. Heralded as someone who makes “real country music” in a time when artists like Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt are finding success at the top of the charts, it’s likely Stapleton wants nothing to do with that—not that he has much of a choice as all three artists are signed to the major label Universal.
It’s also not like Stapleton hasn’t been a fixture in the country music industry for a long time. By 2012, despite not being that known outside of the country world, four of Stapleton’s songs had hit number one. He’s either written songs for nearly every heavy hitter in the past ten years like Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson, and even George Strait, or he’s had songs performed by them, giving them to notoriety, which was the case with “If It Hadn’t Been For Love.” Stapleton wrote the song for The Steeldrivers, and they released it only a few weeks before Adele’s 19 debuted. On her following album, 21, she released her own cover, introducing Stapleton to an entirely new audience. That was in 2011, and three years later we were given Stapleton’s first solo record Traveller. It debuted at number two, but it wasn’t until Stapleton and Justin Timberlake performed together at the 2015 Country Music Association Awards that he became a household name.
The follow up to 2015’s Traveller, From a Room: Volume 1 almost gives away its intent before you hear it, establishing itself without taking up very much space. Even the cover, a monochromatic and cleaned up cousin of Willie Nelson’s Redheaded Stranger, suggests a subtle, smoother, updated version of outlaw country style. Once Stapleton opens with “I’ve seen my share of broken halos,” though, the intent is clear. Stapleton, who critic Craig Jenkins accurately assesses “has earned the rare trust of the country music establishment, diehards, and casual country listeners,”finally had a chance to sit down and teach us what he learned traveling all those years.
It’s easy to believe the quiet man with a sorrow-filled voice that claps like thunder has all the answers. We yearn for that from the artists we trust with our deepest fears and most melancholy thoughts. But Stapleton is not here to help you, he’s made that clear when he warns us not to go looking for reasons or asking Jesus to explain God’s decisions. Stapleton knows what any human worth their weight in gold knows, that sometimes looking too hard is what gets us in the most trouble.
From a Room is comprised of songs written well before he became a household name, with Stapleton reaching back into his catalog of songs he wrote and loves to compile this album. Whether or not he means it to be, it’s a subtle flex on the industry from one of its most talented artists. Only nine songs and 32 minutes long compared to Traveller’s 14 songs and 63 minutes, From a Room manages to take up more mental space than Travelller, simply because of its lack of fired up energy. “Second One to Know” is the most raucous song on the album, and “Them Stems” pokes fun at how little foresight he had in this relationship by showing how little foresight this stoner has by running out of weed, and “Up to No Good Livin'” paints Stapleton as a retired shit-starter who really, really means it this time when he says he’s done with his old ways, even if it’s hard to break his habits.
What makes From a Room Vol. 1 such a forceful album is found in some of the more timeless qualities, like the fact that Stapleton did no new writing for this album, as well as booking RCA Studio A in Nashville—infamously called “the birthplace of Nashville Sound”—continuing to work with Dave Cobb, and by honoring both Willie and Womack. Here, Stapleton has made a perfectly palatable album for country fans and non-fans alike. It’s a perfect life vest for listeners who are unsure of this whole country thing but still want to dive into the genre. This short intimate collection of songs, while powerful, makes me wonder if the only reason we clamor to make him into our begotten son is because we’re already given so little from the mainstream. Surely Stapleton is not the first, nor the last, artist to create music as powerful and surprising as this, so why does Nashville only allow us to have one at a time, with months or years in between? And why are we searching for that answer in what is perhaps a wholly unremarkable release were it not for Stapleton’s sheer talent?
Following “Broken Halos,” a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” defines the album’s attitude. Stapleton is no stranger to covers, and he knows how to pick them. The decision to replace the piano with a harmonica reinforces the album’s hard blues lean and “Death Row” reminds us of country music’s roots to soul music when it closes the album. And how could we not talk about the cover of Leann Womack’s “Either Way,” (written by Stapleton and featuring him on backing vocals) one of the most heartbreaking songs to come out of Nashville in a long while? Stapleton says it’s a favorite song of his wife’s, and follows the trend you so often hear in any song produced by Dave Cobb. His modus operandi to strip an album down and focus on creating a sound that highlights an artist’s voice over everything makes it easy to spot his style a mile away in an over-produced genre.
What the album lacks, and where it falters, is in its lack of songs to light a fire under your ass, and compared to Stapleton’s previous releases it’s a decision that feels absolutely deliberate. One look at a Top Country chart reveals a myriad of fast, energetic songs about drinking and partying, but Stapleton positions himself opposite that with From a Room: Vol. 1. It’s a smart decision; it forces a listener to slow down and consider the raw talent of the artist, but has its pitfalls nonetheless. Without the fire of songs like “Parachute” or “Nobody to Blame” to heat up the album, Stapleton prevents himself from being included in this year’s Summer Country playlists, instead forcing the listener to take a break and consider their mortality. Arguably that’s the nature of country music, but a lack of energy makes this album difficult to enjoy in larger doses. Of course that’s probably the point of these nine songs, but it puts Stapleton in the position of being a voice of reason in the genre, unwittingly pitting him against the very songwriters he’s helped make successful as well as dignifying him as a type of country music deity, which very much does not fall in line with how Stapleton wants to be considered within the industry. Stapleton could have made any kind album he wanted to make, and he made this one.
Annalise Domenighini, on the other hand, is saving country music. Follow her on Twitter.
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