The broad strokes of Chris Stapleton’s story have long since been transformed into modern country-music myth. A veteran songwriter who spent 15 years writing for bros (Luke Bryan, Thomas Rhett), traditionalists (George Strait, Alison Krauss), and the most popular singer in the world (Adele), Stapleton finally stepped out on his own with 2015’s Traveller, one of the decade’s most assured debuts by an artist in any genre. A modest seller initially, Traveller become a multi-platinum phenomenon in the wake of the 49th annual Country Music Association Awards — Stapleton won three big awards (Album Of The Year, Male Vocalist Of The Year, New Artist Of The Year) and brought down the house during a duet with Justin Timberlake. Now, as Stapleton is about to release his second album, From A Room Volume 1, on Friday — the second volume is expected later this year — he’s viewed as nothing less than a standard bearer for an entire genre.
But does Stapleton’s music truly deserve all of the praise? I suspect that even Stapleton would argue “not really.” It has nothing to do with the quality of his songs, which on From A Room Volume 1 are just as likable and immediate as the bulk of Traveller. It’s just that Stapleton has been miscast in the role of revolutionary. He has too much humility to justify that narrative. (From A Room Volume 1, like Traveller, prominently displays all of Stapleton’s co-writers. Even as a star, he’s an anti-auteur.)
Stapleton’s victory at the CMAs two years ago was widely portrayed — with both admiration and a modicum of skepticism — as a victory for “real country.” The truth is somehow less disruptive and more fascinating. No matter his mountain-man exterior and preference for live-in-the-room, analog-style production, Stapleton has never positioned himself as an antidote to glossy mainstream country. He’s not a self-styled rebel like Eric Church, or an overtly retro act like Kacey Musgraves, or a stubborn iconoclast like Sturgill Simpson.