Chris Stapleton – the enigma of country music. A debut album selling 2 million copies, sales stratospherically higher than his counterparts, yet country radio still refuse to commit and his only top 10 single (just about!) to date was ‘Nobody To Blame’. Truth is, country radio needs Stapleton much more than Stapleton needs country radio.
The harsh reality is that it required an awards show appearance with Justin Timberlake to turn people’s heads; such is the struggle on music row. The term ‘overnight success’ cannot be applied more suitably. Suddenly the bearded man from Kentucky who’d written a few hits became the biggest underground-turned-mainstream phenomenon of the genre for many years. It’s fair to say ‘From A Room: Volume 1’ was probably the most anticipated country music release in recent memory; the expectations were inevitably sky high after his iconic first release.
You might think that it’s a pretty short offering, with only 9 songs included, but it’s the first of two parts, recorded with critically-acclaimed producer and long-term work colleague Dave Cobb at Studio A. The early signs were good. ‘Broken Halos’ was the first taster of the new project; a straight-down-the-middle, bona fide Stapleton anthem which is as raw, rootsy and hearty as it gets. Stapleton’s faultless vocal delivery gives the track such a soulful warmth; it’s one of those songs that would work just as well in a small dive as it would in a 20,000 seat arena. That’s the beauty of Stapleton’s work.
‘Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning’ was the second pre-release instant-grat track. A sublime cover of a Willie Nelson classic, it requires nothing more than a couple of guitars, a gorgeously subtle harmonica backing, and flawless harmonies between Chris and Morgane. You know at this moment that there aren’t going to be any surprises here; it takes us right back to the depths of a smoky barroom in Nashville and is unapologetically traditional. He’ll make the record he wants to make, whether you like it or not. Alongside the categorically country ‘Up To No Good Livin’, it’s a masterclass in timeless, classic country instrumentation.
My favourite of the instant-grat releases was ‘Second One To Know’, this album’s reincarnation of ‘Parachute’. It’s that one edgy, off-the-rails offering that really makes you sit up and listen. Production-wise, there’s so much power behind this track with the killer electric guitars ripping through it from start to finish, and Stapleton letting loose with that raspy, now genre-defining voice. ‘Don’t put my love on your back-burner. Never let anything that hot get cold. If you ever change your mind, I won’t leave my love behind, just let me be the second one to know’. Whilst I appreciate the masterful qualities of the Stapleton ballads, this is right up my street. Full of attitude and passion, and one of this year’s stand-out tracks so far.
An early favourite amongst fans and reviewers alike seems to be ‘Either Way’, which happens to be the new single. And it’s the furthest cry from anything remotely tailored towards country radio. It absolutely brought the house down at C2C 2016 and it eclipses all of the material on ‘Traveller’. If anybody needs any convincing when it comes to Stapleton, this is the tipping-point track. The piercing emotion in both the lyrical content and the vocal delivery is unrivalled and it feels like there’s a deep personal connection between the artist and the song, which is actually a rare feature on this project. ‘Either Way’ is country music at its finest…and I’ll be amazed if it cracks the top 20. Remember, according to the Mickey Mouse, radio-driven ACM awards, Thomas Rhett is a better vocalist.
‘I Was Wrong’ is the distinct cross-over track and draws inspiration from Motown and RnB with its bluesy, soulful groove. But it’s still roots-influenced to the core; a seamless blend of styles which continues on the rather haunting, regretful ‘Without Your Love’. But you won’t have to wait long for the country Stapleton to return with the wonderfully quirky honky-tonk tune ‘Them Stems’ about..well..getting stoned. The album then finishes on a sombre note with the self-explanatory ‘Death Row’, another one that delivers a knockout punch when it comes to his unbelievable vocal ability.
Personally, I think this is a step up from ‘Traveller’ which I didn’t think could be achieved. It’s another masterpiece from an artist who we’re lucky to be able to appreciate in his prime, and Stapleton’s authenticity, integrity and sheer quality will deservedly continue to be lauded far and wide. Bring on volume 2!
Dan Wharton (@LifeInASong_Dan)