Two quotes from the man himself a few years back perfectly sum up Chris Stapleton’s fourth studio album Starting Over. Stapleton described himself as “too hillbilly for rock but too rock and roll for country”. He also “tips his hat to the country outlaws Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard and to the old R&B artists Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin”. Put those together and you get Starting Over, the most complete release yet from one of Kentucky’s finest musical exports.
Stapleton has been relatively quiet for nearly three years. Not that he didn’t deserve a break having released twice in 2017; From A Room Volume 1 was the year’s best selling country album. From A Room Volume 2 followed a few months later. Only two years previously he had made his solo debut Traveler. Platinum sales followed for all plus five Grammy awards, ten CMAs and 7 times ACM winner. After that almost vertical ascent to Nashville royalty, it is hard to imagine his previous life playing in bluegrass and southern rock bands then writing songs for other people. But that’s the point of Stapleton, he isn’t a product of the Music City record machine but a unique artist with a deep hinterland. Even more than his other three solo records, on Starting Over Stapleton mixes all that colour onto one canvas using very big strokes.
Through his thoughtful and articulate lyrics Stapleton examines life’s simplest joys and most serious struggles. His gravelly vocals lead a powerful sound, once again produced by Dave Cobb and recorded at RCA Studio A. Long-time band buddies play a blinder while tipping his rock and roll hat he is joined by keyboard maestro Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers.
Opening with the title track to a brisk acoustic strum Stapleton eases himself into a little introspection. “Well the road opens out like a welcome mat/to a better place than the one we’re at/ And I ain’t got no kind of plan/ But I’ve had all of this town I can stand”. Tench’s B3 and Wurlitzer stretch out that road a bit further, “Someday we’ll look back and smile/ And know it was worth every mile”.
The menacing riff of ‘Devil Always Made Me Think Twice’ swings straight towards the southern rock of Stapleton’s earlier life. Aided and abetted by former Heartbreaker Mike Campbell he goes into overdrive with ‘Arkansas’. From gravel to a blood curdling yell Stapleton has left Nashville far behind. “Gotta get down, gotta get down to Arkansas/Having so much fun that its probably a little bit/ against the law”. The zenith of the album’s hard rock comes in ‘Watch You Burn’ and rightly so. Co-written with Campbell Stapleton spits out his fury at the gunman who murdered 60 people at the Las Vegas country festival in 2017. Vocally and sonically he and Campbell vie to return fire with lyric and chord, “Son you’re going to get your turn/ Devil gonna watch you burn”. The All Voices Choir swirl throughout to create am extraordinary cacophony of rage.
Though a formidable rocker if Stapleton had done a Sturgill and blasted out throughout Starting Over would have been a much lesser album. ‘Hillbilly Blood’ delves deeper into blues as Stapleton’s playing matches the heavy atmosphere of his vocals. Moving further away from rock and blues ‘You Should Probably Leave’ has a soulful vibe that creates more space for vocal expression.
This vocal theme develops when Stapleton turns to a more relaxed country style. ‘When I’m With You’ evokes Willie Nelson as Stapleton faces middle age with trepidation. Gently he croons, “But when I’m with you I feel like a dreamer that’s had all his dreams come true”. Stapleton is also a balladeer par excellence. ‘Maggie’s Song’ is a touching tribute to the abandoned puppy he and his wife rescued. This reviewer should state here his love of dogs but Stapleton does manage not to sink into sentimentality instead he reveals the sensitive bond between human and canine.
Stapleton’s choice of cover demonstrates his strong links with the best in country writing. His take on Guy Clark’s ‘Old Friends’ locks the listener into an intimate friendship just as Clark’s original. Staying with Clark Stapleton revs up ‘Worry B Gone’ into a big bar room sound while his and Cobb’s guitars are exquisite on John Fogerty’s ‘Joy of My Life’.
The album closes with ‘Nashville, TN’ co-written with wife Morgane. A lonely pedal steel opens this part lament but part tribute to the city that made him. “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/ You built me up you set me free”. Let’s hope that is the end of a chapter, not the book.