Chris Stapleton | Songs from a Room Vol. 1 (Universal)

The future of country music rests in the hands of someone so incredibly capable of driving it back in the right direction

Chris Stapleton is bridging the gap between country music fans old and new. Fans of rock, pop, and whatever we’re calling the nonsense on current country radio are all swooping up tickets to his “All-American Road Show” this summer. His debut solo album, Traveler, was a sturdy foundation on which to build, but his sophomore effort, Songs from a Room Vol. 1 (“A Room” being RCA Studio A), is only continuing to close that divide. And Vol. 2 is to be released later this year. Sophomore slump be damned, this bearded outlaw country crooner continues to make me proud to be a fan of traditional country music. Songs from a Room shows us a more confidently self-aware Chris Stapleton, both vocally and lyrically.

I’ll be honest: I anxiously (and nervously) awaited the release of the Traveler follow-up. The logic is that this second release would go one of two ways. Being the massive breakout star that he is, I do believe Stapleton has a very dear responsibility to our beloved country music. He holds the keys to the future of the genre. The man became a household name seemingly overnight; I can only imagine that kind of stardom can go to your head rather quickly, and possibly change the way you approach making a record. But the foundation on which he writes and performs seems unshaken, and for that, I could not be more hopeful for the future of country music.

“Broken Halos” opens the album, and sets the bar for Songs from a Room. Four songs on this record were cowritten with former Steeldrivers bandmate, Mike Henderson. I was a huge fan of the Steeldrivers when Stapleton fronted the band, and I can hear trace amounts of their sound on this track in particular. I have said this before, and I certainly don’t mind saying it again: Morgane Stapleton does not get the credit she deserves. She shines with her harmonies, especially on “Broken Halos,” and even though Stapleton’s is a standout vocal talent, she somehow takes his seemingly perfect voice and makes it even better. She’s got one of the best female voices out there right now, and when she gets her moment in the spotlight, it’ll be a sight to see. (She is working on a solo album with Stapleton’s friend, producer and bandmate Dave Cobb.)

“Last Thing I Needed (First Thing this Morning)” starts with the outlaw-phased guitar sound that gives country fans that old familiar feeling. He has a way with down-and-out tracks, and this one is no exception. “Last Thing” makes you feel as though you are belly up to the bar and drinking away your loneliness. I particularly enjoyed the Willie Nelson–like phrasing on this tune, and the slow-rootsy sound Stapleton & Co. pull off so well. With this exemplary harp track, Mickey Raphael (Jason Isbell, Paul Simon, Leon Bridges, Neil Young, Norah Jones Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Duane Eddy, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Leon Russell, Lionel Richie, Elton John, Zac Brown Band, Kenny Chesney, U2, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings) shows us why his credit list is so long and why he is the most sought-after session player.

“Second One to Know” is the first radio single from the record, as well as the first rocker. Quite honestly, this is the one track I could do without. While Stapleton fits in with the Southern rock genre as well as he does Country music, this track didn’t really grab me on any level. When it was released, it was my first inkling of anything resembling imperfection.

If you pick up this record for no other reason, do it for standout track—and my personal favorite—“Either Way,” one of the most well-written songs this man has in his solo repertoire, “Either Way” shows what he’s made of, both vocally and lyrically. Stapleton has said before that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, technically. But, as I said before, this release shows a much more vocally confident performer. Through the story of a physically and emotionally disconnected family, Stapleton reveals a plethora of emotions as the story unfolds. It is both beautiful and tragic simultaneously, which is not an easy task. The story alone is enough to make you feel for the characters in the story, but with Stapleton’s strong vocals and the sonic landscape he and his band create, it’s enough to make you cry and relate no matter your situation.

Stapleton tends to put at least one stone-cold, quintessential outlaw song on his records. Traveler had “Outlaw State of Mind” and “Nobody to Blame”; “Up to No Good Livin’” is that track on this record. Lyrically, it brings to mind anything Hank Jr. or Merle Haggard, but with the Chris Stapleton–controlled growl. In the past, I’ve always been attracted to the hard-time drinking songs, and this fits the mold. It’d make George Jones or Waylon Jennings proud.

This wouldn’t be an outlaw record if there weren’t a mention of narcotics. “Them Stems” is reminiscent of “Might as Well Get Stoned” from the first record, but with a better groove. He and his band do the country blues thing so incredibly well. Lyrically, “Them Stems” sounds like it could’ve been written by Muddy Waters or Lightning Hopkins, and Mickey Raphael gets a chance to show off with some distorted harp. Stapleton also gets to show off his guitar skills, proving he can hang with a band of the industry’s top musicians.

Dave Cobb, who produced Songs from a Room and Traveler and plays guitar in Stapleton’s band (schedule permitting), is known for not having a trademark sound. Instead, he approaches each album with a fresh set of ears and ideas. This is why his usual suspects return to him again and again to produce their records. It’s also the reason Cobb has a line around the block of artists wanting his production credit. This record is no exception, as Cobb managed to knock another Stapleton record out of the park, keeping it sonically dirty and exciting, yet crisp and clean simultaneously.

I have yet to see this release is better than Traveler, but it was a slow burn for me. Being a big fan of Steeldrivers, I had a hard time warming up to Stapleton’s solo material. But when I finally came around, I ended up really loving that record. I am writing this as I listen to the album for the third time in its entirety on release day, and I am already in love, so I have a sneaking suspicion that it was find its way past Traveler on my list of favorites.

I can also rest easy with the fact that the future of my most beloved genre of music rests in the hands of someone so incredibly capable of driving it back in the right direction. | Greg Clark

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