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On Wednesday night, Chris Stapleton’s soulful cask-bourbon rasp rang out again at the Country Music Association Awards. He sang the title track and lead single of his first new album since 2017, Starting Over, with his steady duet partner and spouse, Morgane Stapleton. Five years ago, the CMAs were the scene of the performance that’s gone down in more-or-less accurate legend as the one that made Stapleton’s career, more improbably paired with a twang-dabbling Justin Timberlake. Despite its title, “Starting Over” isn’t any kind of stylistic break for Stapleton—like most of this album, it traffics in the same charismatically bluesy sound he’s made his own in the past half-decade, after a dozen years as a behind-the-scenes hit songwriter. But singing it, he now seemed like a premature elder statesman.
Not, mind you, in the manner of true veterans such as co-host Reba McEntire and certainly not living icon Charley Pride, among others in the room, but in his own particular way. When he made that breakthrough in 2015, this Kentucky coal miner’s son was seen as shaking up an industry then full of shallow party songs by square-jawed, clean-shaven “bros” (cf. Jody Rosen). He was reaching back to the blend of toughness and vulnerability that had marked past eras of country masculinity. But now, in 2020, a more complicated maleness at least superficially prevails in Nashville country.
It’s there in the wife-guy charm-mongering of Thomas Rhett and other “country gentlemen” (cf. Jon Caramanica) who prostrate themselves in paeans to the women in their lives, as if in some kind of abstract recompense for the gender imbalance in the genre. But most of all, that new Nashville manhood is evident in the recent commercial dominance of the smart, wry, self-deprecating revisions of good-ol’-boy clichés conveyed by the ginger pubes–bearded, Crocs-shod Luke Combs, who collected the CMA’s Album of the Year for his What You See Is What You Get, and his successors such as best-new-artist winner Morgan Wallen. (Note that Wallen prevailed as the only white guy nominated in the category.) Combs plays the beer-loving loser with a heart of fool’s gold, whose escapist indulgences are regularly deflated by foul-ups and loneliness, the sting extracted only by a witty hook and a roaring band. Stapleton has more of a realist edge—his good times tend to come with harsher consequences, with heaven and hell in more grave competition. But it does feel like he wedged open the way for the back-to-basics threads that Combs and company have spun into country-chart gold.
Stapleton is only sporadically a country-radio hitmaker. But neither is he neglected there like the other two acts his prime (non-Morgane) collaborator, producer Dave Cobb, is associated with, the Americana artists Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. Not coincidentally, Stapleton isn’t as outspoken in politics or genre critique as those two. Like a lot of mainstream country’s most thoughtful artists—Eric Church or Miranda Lambert, for instance—he walks the insider/outsider line. This week’s CMA event was disconcerting in its inconsistent approach to pandemic safety protocols and in its hedging treatment of race after the “Old Town Road” controversy as well as the Black Lives Matter protests. (I recommend Marissa R. Moss and Natalie Weiner’s newsletter for a rollicking and cathartic rundown.) If Stapleton were as much of a rebel as the one he often plays in song, he might have disrupted the proceedings by singing not “Starting Over” but its thematically similar yet much more explicit getting-out-of-town bookend from the end of the album, “Nashville, TN,” which reads as his breakup song with Music City, treating it like a disappointing ex-lover: “So long, Nashville, Tennessee/ You can’t have what’s left of me … So you be you and I’ll be me/ So long, Nashville, Tennessee.”
But at heart, Stapleton is not a provocateur. He and Morgane and their five kids only moved to a rural property a few miles north of Nashville to escape the glare of attention, as a lot of country stars do. And Starting Over as a whole is not a provocative album. It doesn’t attempt much realignment in answer to country’s moves. What it does is music, and it does it very well.
In the making, over the past couple of years, there was some experimentation. Stapleton attempted sessions in Muscle Shoals, the fabled historic home of country-soul, but ended up retreating to his familiar base of RCA Studio A in Nashville for the bulk of it. He also connected with two members of the late Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, for some musical refreshing, but their influence is lightly felt. In the end, if Starting Over offers a statement of principles, it’s that Stapleton is going to make Stapleton music, equal parts country, Southern rock, raw sentimentality, and self-reflective singer-songwriter-ism. This is what I mean by calling him an éminence grise before his time: That restraint isn’t what popular artists still in the thick of market and artistic competition usually do in trying to bend the form to their will. It’s what Stapleton heroes such as Willie Nelson spend the second halves of their careers doing, asking what intrigues them at the moment and how close to right they can get it this time. Stapleton was up to the same stuff before you’d heard of him, and apparently you hearing him makes little difference to what he’s going to do. If you like it, that’s good news, but not much of a story for critics or social media, and it’s a deliberate choice.
These are taut, efficient songs, barely breaking three or four minutes except for “Cold,” an R&B workout with strings that lets Stapleton commune with his Stax/Atlantic devotion—this might be the second Stapleton song that Adele would be a natural to cover. Bootlegger-lore brooder “Hillbilly Blood” nods to early Steve Earle, and dead-dog tune “Maggie’s Song” curiously borrows the verse melody of the Band’s “The Weight” (I’m not much for dead-dog tunes), while “Arkansas” serves up a pulse-boosting Allmans/Skynyrd road-trip rambler that finds Stapleton showing off a rare, for him, lyrical flair, with lines like, “Well, we burned through one-light towns like a scalded dog/ When we lit out of Fayetteville, they were calling the hogs.” “You Should Probably Leave” is an impressively subtle, catchy song about fraught sexual negotiation that country radio might be too bluenosed to play. But “Whiskey Sunrise” has more disturbing reverberations. With its opening lines, “There’s a tear in the mud on the banks of the river/ And the sound of a lover’s goodbye,” and its open-string guitar drone, it feels like a song that might have been a murder ballad in a previous generation. In 2020, however, it’s a story of self-destruction—“every shot I take just turns into teardrops”—a soundtrack for the statistics about suicide and overdoses among middle-aged white men.
On “Watch You Burn,” a hoarse Stapleton exorcises his fury about the 2017 massacre at a Las Vegas country festival, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. Given the liberal-conservative tensions in Nashville country, it’s both shocking and unsurprising how few songs have approached this subject. (Eric Church’s “Why Not Me?” may be the most wrenching.) Stapleton brings a sulfuric scourging to the topic that may not correspond to what leftier listeners want, but in addressing other “evil ones,” he does specify, “let it give you pause/ before you mail out your bombs/ or pull a trigger in a synagogue.” I don’t have thorough data, but might this be the first mainstream country track ever to use that word?
The album includes three covers, two of them songs by the Texan-country Michelangelo, Guy Clark, who died in 2016. One is a roadhouse ode to weed smoking called “Worry B Gone,” but it’s immediately followed by one of Clark’s characteristic miniatures of emotional devastation, “Old Friends”—and the spoken-word verses leading into the sung chorus here might never have been done so well before. There are a few other moments on this record, in its privacy and self-possession, that feel apt for the year of quarantine. But this one in 2020 raked my ribs immediately: “And you’re really feeling fragile/ And you really can’t get home/ And you really feel abandoned/ But you want to be alone,” Stapleton recites. The remedy Clark’s words offer, that “Old friends/ They shine like diamonds/ Old friends/ You can always call,” gets me choking up, remembering nights I’ve had online since March with people that most years I haven’t talked to enough, who’ve showed me we can endure because we bear each other in mind, that the world has not run out of continuity.
The other cover, of former Creedence Clearwater Revival leader John Fogerty’s very wife-guy “Joy of My Life,” is the album’s one mistake, given that two cuts before it, Stapleton already has a far better version, “When I’m With You”—likely the best song on the album, reminiscent of the late John Prine (who many people were outraged did not get a CMAs tribute or mention). It pulls off an unlikely mix of middle-aged crisis and love song, both opening and closing with the lines, “I’m 40 years old/ And it looks like the end of the rainbow ain’t no pot of gold.” At a loping, Merle Haggard pace, it goes as dark as can be—“Most of the time I feel like I’m fading into the night”—but relieves it with the thought that love keeps turning skies blue. Here, too, there are pandemic echoes, not at all restricted to this situation: “I’ve got a good job/ And I’m thankful to be working when so many good people are not.” It does what Stapleton and country music do at their best, admitting how few of our circumstances are under our control, with fatalism, with gratitude, and with class politics under their breath. It’s a song I can imagine being sung for decades to come. If we have decades to come. And it might require an artist who declines to take a stand either way on that and other judgments to be able to write anything like it.