REVIEW: Chris Stapleton – ‘From A Room: Vol. 2’

From A Room Volume 2, released on 1 December, is Chris Stapleton’s second album this year and third as a solo artist. As with its predecessor it takes the listener deeper into Stapleton’s talents as a writer and musician.

There is no doubt that Chris Stapleton resides among today’s artists right at the top of their game. His position is thoroughly justified and has been marked by numerous awards. But what can be overlooked is just how swift has been his ascent following long years of hard work in bands before he embarked on a solo career. Stapleton’s 2015 solo debut, Traveller, shot him to immediate fame. It has sold over two million copies in the US alone, prompting the inevitable “how do you follow that?” Instead of another full-length album Stapleton has released the slightly shorter From A Room Volume 1 and now 2.

In nine songs, From A Room Volume 2 goes deep into the Stapleton music archives, demonstrating clearly his fierce refusal to be penned into a specific category of music. And quite right too because such labels can be so restricting, misleading even. Stapleton once admitted he can sing bluegrass but doesn’t fit exclusively there, he’s too hillbilly for rock but too rock n’roll for country. You get the picture. He switches effortlessly between these different styles but his genius lies in how he blends them. Put that together with a vocal sound that his most certainly his alone, Stapleton has created his own genre.

A Room Volume 2 starts with ‘Millionaire’, a song whose opening bars lead into the vocals indicate classic Stapleton lies ahead. It just says one word, power. That comes from blending the simplest of acoustic chords, a voice that, to say the very least, has lived life and a spare but perfectly applied electric guitar solo. “Love is more precious than gold, can’t be bought, can’t be sold”.

‘Hard Livin’ sounds autobiographical. How else do you get a voice like that? The intro has a hint of menace, “I’ve been known to get out of hand”, but this is more of a reflection as Stapleton looks back on a life of drinking and fighting but, “this hard livin’ ain’t as easy as it used to be”. Does this hark back to his days in The Steel Drivers or The Jompsons, a band with distinct southern rock roots?

Stapleton’s storytelling comes to the fore on ‘Scarecrow’, a song about emigrants from Northern Ireland to West Virginia. They built a farm and raised a family. Both prospered but the next generation battled pressures to keep up and then “the fields ain’t what they were”, until the story ends with “bottle in my left hand and pistol in my right”. Stapleton squeezes the last drops of tragedy out of this tragedy.

‘Nobody’s Lonely Tonight’ is a moody piece of introspection. I think what he means is nobody’s lonely tonight but him. The atmosphere Stapleton creates is as thick as the smoke swirling around this barroom (possibly set some time ago). ‘Tryin’ to Untangle My Mind’ is a look back on a life lived to the full. Sure, he’s raised hell but he has no regrets, “I’ve drunk a lot of whisky, held a lot of women that were fine”. He’s blown all the money he’s ever made but who cares? “I do what I do and I don’t know why, but I’ll do what I do until I die”. He knows this has brought him low but wants no pity. He is responsible for his own actions. This is pure outlaw country where the tempo matches his conscience in terms of relaxation.

‘A Simple Song’ is just that, a gentle hymn in praise of the simplicities and pleasures of family life despite hardship accompanied by equally gentle acoustic picking with even lighter backing drums and vocals.

‘Midnight Train To Memphis’ leans on Leadbelly’s ‘Midnight Special’ singing of a prisoner’s yearning to escape his incarceration on that midnight train. Here Stapleton snarls his hatred for the judge and jury who put him there with a riff that comes straight from his rock slots.

It’s back to the booze with ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’, more of a plea from a man who recognises that he cannot make that connection with the Almighty without help from the bottle. Again with minimal accompaniment Stapleton rasps “I get drunk and talk to God …I mean every word I say and promise I’ll change”. The futility of his promise is painful. A perfect slide opens the final track to a bluesy “Friends”. Stapleton simply oozes with the love he has for a longtime friend who’s hit hard times. “Don’t give up, this bond we share is strong”.

A potential gripe with this record could lie in having to shell out for two shortish albums instead of combining them into the better value of one longer release. Whatever, in only nine carefully selected tracks, Stapleton shows a range of creativity and versatility that many others would need a triple album to do. Comparisons to Otis Redding and George Jones explains why and From A Room Volume 2 close out 2017 in style. Expect further accolades.

Lyndon Bolton