As great as Chris Stapleton’s debut album, Traveller, was (and still is), that 2015 record felt like the product of an artist dipping their toes into the commercial mainstream. After a decade of writing material for other people, songs that tamped down his rugged Seger-meets-Strait sound for the sake of finding a radio hit, the now 39-year-old wisely played it a little safe on his first solo effort. And it paid off with multi-platinum sales and a mantelpiece stacked with awards.
With all that wind in his sails, Stapleton is going for broke in 2017. He has two albums planned for release this year and a calendar full of tour dates to think about. But more importantly, he’s finally whipping back the curtain to reveal his true musical self, if the first volume of From a Room is any indication. These nine songs have the potent rumble of a muscle car revving its engine as a show of strength balanced with that poignant ache that country music does so well.
Nothing announces this more boldly than the way Stapleton sings here. The Kentucky native is blessed with a glorious baritone voice and a pair of lungs that help push it way into the red. There were flashes of that on Traveller, but he kept it mostly in crooner mode. On From a Room, he’s aiming for the nosebleeds.
That’s evident right from the jump as Stapleton lays into the first lines of opening track “Broken Halo”, an anthem of the sinner inside all of us and the redemption found in the angels that help us along the way. It’s pure worship material, performed with the kind of conviction meant to rouse the congregation to reverent heights. Can’t do that with a quiet whisper. True to the outlaw country mold, he applies that same full-throated spirit to “Them Stems”, a bluesy shuffle about getting down to the dregs of your weed stash.
The heart of From a Room is a trio of songs that unveils even more shades to Stapleton’s character as a songwriter and performer. These tunes sit right in the middle of the album and explore a few variations on the theme of love gone bad. Most affecting is “Either Way”, an incredible, spare ballad telling the painful tale of a marriage nearing its end (“It’s been so long since I felt/ Anything inside these walls… I used to cry and stay up nights/ And wonder what went wrong”). Stapleton’s decision to sing the chorus with an arms-open roar is a little on-the-nose emotionally, but hearing that twinge of agony that lays just below the surface keeps it grounded and honest. The songs that follow — the mid-tempo plea of “I Was Wrong” and the impatient “Without Your Love”, where he’s matched every step of the way by his wife’s pinpoint harmony vocals — may not go quite as deep, but their combined power is nothing short of remarkable.
On a macro level, From a Room hews to the formula of an outlaw country artist, right down to the closing murder ballad (“Death Row”) and the drowsy sway of hard livin’ tunes like “Up to No Good Livin’”. But considering the modern country marketplace that Stapleton’s stomping into, one where cohorts like Brad Paisley and Eric Church are trying to get rock audiences to warm to their twang, his move to add a layer of grit and spit to his work is a much-needed counterpoint to the Nashville hit machine. If he scores some radio hits and bigger sales numbers than ever before, even better.
Essential Tracks: “Either Way”, “I Was Wrong”, and “Without Your Love”