Chris Stapleton has a formula and he’s sticking to it. Who can blame him? His 2015 breakthrough Traveller is one of the most popular albums of recent years. (If you don’t know anyone who loves it, visit the middle of the country.) Once — if — the live music business is back up and running, he will resume playing stadiums. And his latest record due out today, Starting Over, will surely top the charts and soundtrack socially distanced barbecues from Jacksonville to Phoenix for the foreseeable future.
A cynic might wonder how Stapleton has pulled this off. Ostensibly packaged as a country star, Stapleton in fact plays a form of music that critics and tastemakers have long since left for dead: heartland rock. Take the soulful bar-band raspiness of Bob Seger, meld it with the simple yet catchy homespun melodies of John Mellencamp, sprinkle in some Tom Petty guitars and add the smallest pinch of Waylon and Willie, and you have captured the essence of the Traveller sound.
At this point, a less assured (or more artistically ambitious) superstar might begin to second guess the formula, and contemplate tinkering and experimenting. But judging by Starting Over, that thought couldn’t be farther from Stapleton’s mind. Starting Over might as well be called Staying On Brand. As always, his songs fall into one of two categories: This Is Us and Justified. The former category is reserved for the title track from Starting Over, a plaintive ballad in which a quintessential Stapleton protagonist — a fundamentally good man facing a crossroads in his life — once again flirts with the possibility of genuine angst and drama. But in the end, Stapleton settles into an amiably mid-tempo groove anchored by his steady acoustic strum, Morgane Stapleton’s intuitive harmony vocal, and Dave Cobb’s reliably tasteful and upscale Americana production. You will feel heartstrings pulled, tears jerked, and lessons learned. But it will never seem less than comfy, like a solid bro hug.
The latter category — which makes up the bulk of Starting Over — is composed of swampy choogle-rockers that you can easily imagine soundtracking various shenanigans perpetrated by the Boyd Crowder gang. You can tell which songs slot here just by the titles: “Devil Always Make Me Think Twice,” “Arkansas,” “Hillbilly Blood,” “Whiskey Sunrise.” Apologies if you had “moonshine” on your southern signifiers bingo card, but I’m sure Chris will get to that one on the next album.
Lest I sound overly critical here, I should make it clear that I like Stapleton’s music generally, even if his shortcomings are readily apparent. As a songwriter, he frequently reverts to clichés and generalities, both lyrical and musical. No matter the outlaw trappings of his mountain-man beard and omnipresent hat, he delivers bluesy rockers and country ballads with the straight-down-the-middle precision of a GPS navigating through a country-club golf course. The man is a walking Spotify algorithm for “rootsy,” the personification of a Music Row theme bar, a signifier of designer cowboy boots and celebrity-endorsed bourbons. He’s as dangerous as an unloaded pistol.
But he’s also a professional. He writes songs that work. And he’s likable. You might roll your eyes at his songs, but you’ll never hate them. Even for someone like me, who prides himself on seeing through the standard tricks of the show-business trade, Stapleton has a way of cutting through your defenses and hitting pay dirt.
That moment on Starting Over occurred at the album’s midpoint. Up until then, I had been having a reasonably good time. While Stapleton’s albums lack any sort of edge, they sound pretty great if you happen to enjoy rustic instrumental tones that I will now snarkily refer to as “cabin-core.” Cobb of course has made this production style his bread and butter, but Stapleton is also wise to utilize ringers, including Petty’s two closest lieutenants from the Heartbreakers, guitarist Mike Campbell (who also co-wrote two songs, including the surly “Arkansas”) and keyboardist Benmont Tench, whose impeccable organ and piano fills are all over the record. Emulating the laidback clubhouse rock of Wildflowers has never been a bad idea as far as I’m concerned.
But the steady drip of backwoods romanticism and lite Southern noir was starting to get a little tiresome by the time of Stapleton’s cover of John Fogerty’s “Joy Of My Life” and the aforementioned “Hillbilly Blood,” which is basically a TV movie version of a Drive-By Truckers song. But then Stapleton got one over on me with the next tune, “Maggie’s Song.”
What is “Maggie’s Song” about? I’m glad you asked, because I would have appreciated someone giving me a heads up about this track before I put on Starting Over. “Maggie’s Song” is about this sweet little dog — “with the heart of a rebel child,” Chris informs us — that Stapleton bought as a pup. He takes her to the farm, where she runs around with his kids and chases squirrels. (“Man, you should have seen her go,” Chris marvels.) The dog grows up, and she’s pretty much the greatest dog ever. And then one morning, she wakes up and can’t use her legs. She puts her head on Chris’ hand, “like she done so many times.” He tells her she’s a good dog. And then … he says goodbye.
Jesus H. Christ. But Chris isn’t done. He actually sees Maggie’s spirit ascend into heaven! Because this dog was the best! Please Chris, I am already curled into a fetal position on the floor, sobbing my damn guts out. Have mercy on me.
Yes, “Maggie’s Song” is corny and manipulative, like many Chris Stapleton tunes. But I repeat: His songs work. They are functional in a way that most “brilliant” and “artful” music is not. You can put Starting Over on at a family gathering and likely satisfy both the Biden and Trump voters in your bloodline. (You certainly won’t upset either constituency, unless someone has recently lost a beloved pet.) Starting Over goes down extremely easy, which I suppose is a criticism. But it’s also the best compliment I can pay this record.
Starting Over is out now via Mercury Nashville. Get it here.