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.
As Stapleton himself has said time and again in interviews — and demonstrated musically on Traveller — he is the opposite of an anti-establishment outlaw. Rather, he is a product of the establishment, a quintessential insider dressed in outsider’s clothing. Given his background, Stapleton’s triumph at the 2015 CMAs (or his subsequent victories at the other gazillion country-music award shows) seems more like a form of self-idealization by Music Row, Exhibit A in the case for Nashville still breeding artists of taste and distinction. Perhaps rewarding Stapleton was not really a rebuke of bro-country, as some believed, but actually an opportunity for so many anonymous industry lifers to elevate the best possible version of themselves.
Stapleton sort of reminds me of Tom Petty, and not just because Stapleton and Petty are performing a handful of shows together this summer. Like Petty, Stapleton is a consummate craftsman who specializes in the essential but decidedly unflashy art of the mid-tempo summer-barbecue jam. Stapleton’s best songs — such as Traveller‘s “When The Stars Come Out” or From A Room Volume 1‘s “Broken Halos” — don’t really start to seem amazing until you’ve heard them twenty times. That’s no accident; they’ve been designed that way, like slow-release capsules. Even Stapleton’s deep cuts are written to potentially withstand constant radio rotation.
Maybe I have Petty on the brain because From A Room Volume 1 feels more akin to a vintage heartland rock record than anything resembling “classic” country. The most straight-forward country song on From A Room Volume 1 is “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning,” a modern standard by Gary P. Nunn and Donna Farar popularized by Willie Nelson in the early ’80s. But the rest of the record picks up from Traveller‘s “Outlaw State Of Mind,” a swampy standout deployed so evocatively at the end of 2016’s neo-noir Hell Or High Water. While “Up To No Good Livin'” nods in the direction of Waylon-oriented country rock, the excellent stomper “Second One To Know” and the menacing closer “Death Row” could easily be mistaken for Black Keys songs. A devotee of the blues (the late, great Texas guitarist Freddie King is a favorite) who spent time in a hard-charging southern-fried rock back in the early ’10s, Stapleton has never hewed particularly close to a sepia-tinged sound, even on Traveller. But From A Room Volume 1 finds Stapleton taking a few more steps toward straight-up bluesy rock.
But, again, this seems less a case of “challenging” Nashville conventions than a matter of personal taste. The essential art of Stapleton’s music has not changed since he was anonymous song plugger. Stapleton still writes pop songs, but he also happens to really like southern rock. So he arranges his pop songs to sound like southern-rock songs. That’s it — everything else is a debate about aesthetics. Amp up the radio-friendly melodrama in the production, and “Broken Halos” could easily be a Luke Bryan single. Slip in some ersatz hip-hop beats, and the plaintive acoustic ballad “Either Way” could be a soulful Thomas Rhett joint. And Stapleton wouldn’t object to any of that. His songs are sturdy but malleable. Compared to a true Nashville outsider like Jason Isbell, Stapleton’s songs can seem a little broad, even generic, favoring platitudes about angels and narratives in which bad boys learn to be good thanks to the love of a good woman. Viewed more sympathetically, however, Stapleton’s broadness helps to account for his popularity. The Music Row ethos is bred into him — his songs were written to be played by anybody and enjoyed by anybody.
If Stapleton is a throwback, it’s to a time in the ’50s and early ’60s when a burly man’s man could sing “authentic” hard-luck tunes in a growly voice and also unapologetically engage with the sillier aspects of pop music. (Stapleton’s co-write of Bryan’s “Drink A Beer,” one of the most enjoyably corny bro-ballads of recent years, attests to his willingness to be completely shameless.) At any rate, Stapleton’s music tends to work better when it’s not affixed with unnecessary baggage about “saving” country music. The weight of those expectations can cause Stapleton to slouch, making him appear ordinary in a way that’s unflattering. Unlike, say, Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music or even Church’s self-conscious arena-rock provocations on albums like 2014’s The Outsiders, Traveller and From A Room Volume 1 are utterly devoid of an agenda. Depending on your perspective, that may either seem refreshing or like a bit of a cop-out. I lean toward the former — like I said, I’m here for the barbecue jams, not polemics.
From A Room: Volume 1 is out 5/5 via Mercury Records/Universal Music Group Nashville. Get it here.