The Return of the King

On his quietly eclectic new album, Chris Stapleton refuses to be pegged as country music’s savior—or anything else.

Chris Stapleton
Chris Stapleton performs April 2 at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Are you sure Hank done it this way? Frankly, I don’t think Chris Stapleton gives a damn.

In the two years since the Nashville singer-songwriter’s breakthrough with his album Traveller (the best-selling country album of the past couple of years), including the night he stole the 2015 Country Music Association Awards (in the major prizes as well as his performance), he’s often been held up as a standard-bearer of a bygone country “traditionalism.” And yes, the Kentucky-raised Stapleton has as much Waylon and Willie running through his musical veins as anyone does, as Stapleton signals with a stirring cover of Nelson’s early-1980s gem “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” on his new album From A Room, Vol. 1.

But shrunk down to that size, the picture loses plenty of detail, including that this supposed throwback’s high-profile TV debut was alongside one of the world’s biggest pop stars, that old cowpoke Justin Timberlake. And to treat Stapleton as a burly, bearded rebuke to modern Nashville pretty boys such as Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan, you have to ignore that for a decade he made a handsome living writing hits for them.

He’s had a bluegrass band and a southern-rock group, too, and his closest collaborator (besides his fellow singer and spouse, Morgane Stapleton, née Hayes, whose supple tones brighten up his grizzled yowls) is producer Dave Cobb, whose roots are much more in rock and soul. As Stapleton said in an interview last year, “I don’t think country music needs saving from anything. … I would rather people stop caring about [drawing] lines.”

Given Stapleton’s instinctive eclecticism, it was hard to guess how exactly he would follow a phenomenon like Traveller. Would he make a play for a more radio-friendly sound or steal further into left field? On From A Room, Vol. 1 (a second volume is coming later in the year), the changes are as modest and low-key as his persona. The album is a smidge stripped-down and—as hinted by the title, which refers to its recording in the hallowed RCA Studio A, where Chet Atkins forged the 1960s-vintage Nashville Sound—more live-sounding, compared with the previous album’s slightly smoother Americana atmospherics.

But really just slightly and a smidge. It makes sense it’s not an evolutionary leap forward, as it’s not a batch of new songs (no doubt his calendar’s been kind of full) but a selection from Stapleton’s reportedly thousand song–strong back catalog. The tunes don’t sound tired at all but raring to come out and play.

On my first listen, I got the impression the collection leaned more to Stapleton’s blues-rock side, with the hot licks of “Second One to Know,” “I Was Wrong,” “Death Row,” and the shaggy weed-scrounger anthem “Them Stems” evoking Freddie King or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Which, to be honest, is not my personal favorite sound. Thankfully, though, in a period when artists have been overstuffing albums with tracks to maximize the impact of streaming statistics on the charts, Vol. 1 weighs in at a lean nine songs. So it was easy to get better acquainted and find my way to its quieter moments, at which point I started to appreciate the contrasting vigor of the blues workouts.

The set’s twin peaks for me come midway, with the pairing of two love-on-the-rocks tunes, the cheeky “Up to No Good Livin’ ” (in which a reformed “Picasso of paintin’ the town” pays his penance in the form of regular spousal cross-examinations that turn “into the Gettysburg Address”) and the pitiless “Either Way,” about a couple shuffling numbly through the motions of a dead relationship. That song was first recorded by Lee Ann Womack on her 2008 album Call Me Crazy, in an arrangement that felt sorrowful but realistically resigned. Here, however, as the song claws its way out of Stapleton’s throat, it’s like it’s being howled into a starless void.

On “Without Your Love,” the texture is closer to a classic soul ballad, as the band builds up from a subtle acoustic guitar figure into a more heated state of crisis in which “every moment’s a crime.” The entry of Morgane Stapleton’s duet vocal evokes the song’s central, structuring absence in a way that rivets our sympathies into synch with the narrator’s anguish.

The sole cover, that Willie oldie, is a charming genuflection to an elder master, who at 84 released his own album last week, God’s Problem Child (which the Wall Street Journal’s Barry Mazor calls Nelson’s “strongest and most consistent in decades”). And yet, in its loving fidelity to the original, the track suggests a few of Stapleton’s limitations: It’s only here, following Nelson’s blueprint, that his voice does anything unexpected with rhythm and meter, getting away from the obvious ways of phrasing around the arrangement. That’s one secret to growing from performing songwriter to versatile interpreter.

Fans who loved Traveller won’t be let down by From A Room, Vol. 1, but maybe not fully satiated either, so it helps to know the sequel is in the works, probably for the fall. It’s far too tempting to start guessing whether it will lead in other directions. I’d love, for instance, to hear Stapleton experiment with the contemporary R&B sounds that have been filtering into Nashville lately, through singers, such as Sam Hunt, who use digital beats and a more come-hither kind of loverman soulfulness than we usually associate with the words country style. (Though Nashville has had its bedroom-eyes phases in the past, too.) Or maybe the album will be more of a husband-and-wife duet record, opening the way for a solo outing by Morgane and perhaps even with some guests from among the wave of country female voices, some pop and some indie, who are kicking back against the radio-driven domination of dudes in the format—one level on which country could use some saving.

Most likely, though, Stapleton will keep following nobody’s agenda but his own. Which, on the evidence so far, should make anyone with open ears plenty thankful.