With his sophomore album, “From a Room: Volume 1,” Chris Stapleton will have, perhaps, his best chance yet to get ahead of the backlash that will inevitably head in his direction if he does not first become the biggest star in country music. To be clear, Stapleton absolutely has the talent for the latter to happen.
His 2015 solo debut, “Traveller,” was one of the most critically-acclaimed country albums of his generation. The album featured a tightly constructed collection of outlaw country, infused with ample doses of Stapleton’s soulful delivery, carrying the fourteen tracks.
His voice has always been Stapleton’s greatest weapon. It's one with some country parallels, but also strong similarities to country-influenced, but not country per se, southerners: Ray Charles, Gregg Allman and Otis Redding. There’s also a hint of Van Morrison, an artist so non-southern he literally hails from a country that begins with the word, “Northern.”
But Stapleton’s songwriting has garnered more than its share of attention, penning radio hits such as Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn” and Luke Bryan’s “Drink a Beer.” Yet, despite these credits, his contagious voice and scores of awards, the Lexington, Ky. native remains an outsider in the popular country mainstream.
Stapleton has been the R.E.M. of the bro-country era. He's a talented, interesting and acclaimed artist in an era in which most of the biggest artists of the genre (in R.E.M.’s case, the Motley Crues and Bon Jovis of the world) are providing simple, mindless entertainment. Eventually, R.E.M. entered mass culture; it just took a while. But with Stapleton, the consensus has been so overwhelming, and at times overbearing, that it threatens his opportunity at superstardom, as his style differs greatly from acts like Florida Georgie Line.
“From a Room: Volume 1” opens with “Broken Halos,” which is also the album’s first promotional single. It is a gospel-influenced, mid-tempo song, reminiscent of his first album’s relatively more upbeat numbers.
Next comes a Willie Nelson cover, “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning,” which shows Stapleton’s vocal chops, but never quite kicks the album into gear. That’s where the third track, “Second One to Know,” a straight-up southern rock song, comes in handy. Stapleton being the opposite of bro-country does not mean that his music must necessarily be opposed to being fun, and this song shows that.
From there, the album pivots to “Up to No Good Livin’,” an old-school, Merle Haggard-like country song if ever there were one. The song is filled with more than its fair share of 60s-era slide guitar and female backing vocals (performed by his wife, Morgane Hayes-Stapleton). “Either Way” is a slow acoustic blues cut driven primarily by Stapleton’s passionate vocal delivery, while “I Was Wrong” only incrementally speeds up the formula.
“Without Your Love” borders on pop (think Tracy Chapman pop, not Katy Perry pop), with his gravelly style grounding it in its rootsy intentions. On the penultimate track, “Them Stems,” Stapleton’s guitar work gets its time to shine. The album closes with “Death Row,” a much more serious blues song which is lyrically, exactly what you might expect from the title.
Will “From a Room: Volume 1” be Chris Stapleton’s pop-country breakthrough? On paper, it seems unlikely. The album is bluesier than “Traveller,” which struggled to find radio play. It is a much shorter album, with barely half of the total length. But this works to its advantage. While “Traveller” had stronger peaks, its hour-plus run time makes it a bit of a grind; the under-33 minute “From a Room: Volume 1” never gets boring.
But listeners looking for jacked-up-truck anthems will, once again, be left out. However, this doesn’t mean Stapleton can’t find his way into bro-country loyalist rotations. These pop-country artists all do ballads, too, and Stapleton does them better.
It will behoove Stapleton and his promoters to ride out the storm. Contrary to the common narrative, Nirvana didn’t kill hair metal. Hair metal died an organic, inevitable death, and Nirvana happened to be peaking at the right time to become the next big thing. And eventually, bro-country will run its course, with only the cream of its crop surviving into the next wave of popular country music.
And if Chris Stapleton can maintain the pace he has set with his first two albums, he should be able to run with the front of the pack. And it really boils down to his extraordinary talent.