No artist has ever had a success story quite like that of Chris Stapleton. Two years ago this week, Stapleton released his debut album, a 14-track collection of old school country, blues, southern rock, and soul called Traveller. The album didn’t arrive without buzz: Stapleton was one of the most dependable songwriters in Nashville, a guy with (at the time) four number one country hits to his name. He also made his record with Dave Cobb, the producer who had helped Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson craft breakthrough, critically-beloved albums the two years previous. The result was a number 14 debut on the Billboard 200 with 27,000 copies sold; not remarkable, but not bad for a debut artist, either.
For the next six months, it looked like Traveller was destined to become a cult classic. Country music websites—from Rolling Stone Country to Taste of Country to Saving Country Music—unanimously called it the best record of the year at mid-year. Country radio, meanwhile, ignored it, leaving the album without much in the way of mainstream traction. But then November 4th happened, and Stapleton swept the biggest awards at the annual CMA Awards. He also shared the stage with Justin Timberlake for a thrilling two-song live performance that almost instantly went viral. The combined exposure of the award wins and the most buzzed-about televised music performance of the year gave Stapleton an unprecedented 6,000% boost in album sales. He not only re-entered the Billboard 200, but Traveller leapfrogged everything else on the market to take the top spot. No other album in the history of the Billboard 200 has ever re-entered the chart at number one.
Country radio still couldn’t be bothered to play Stapleton much after that, but it didn’t matter. A Grammy nomination for Album of the Year followed, and by February 2016, Traveller had gone platinum. Currently, the album is pushing two million copies and shows no signs of slowing down. It was the top selling country album in 2016 and one of the top-five best-selling albums in any genre. At the time of this writing, Traveller is at 33 on the Billboard 200—seven slots ahead of Adele’s record-smashing 25.
Needless to say, albums don’t arrive with much more anticipation than From A Room: Volume 1, Stapleton’s sophomore album and the first piece of a planned double album. (Volume 2 is slated for a release around Christmas.) When he released Traveller, Stapleton had the luxury of being a best-kept secret. Everyone in Nashville knew he had the songs, the chops, and the voice to be a star, but people outside of Nashville songwriting circles mostly didn’t have a clue who he was. On From A Room, Stapleton is no longer a secret on any level. Instead, he has the challenge of making a record that lives up to a surprise sales juggernaut—one that was universally beloved by pretty much everyone, country fans or otherwise. That’s not an easy position to be in.
But here’s the thing: Stapleton still has the songs. He’s still got the chops. And holy mother of god, he still has the voice. “Seen my share of broken halos/Folded wings that used to fly/They’ve all gone wherever they go/Broken halos that used to shine,” he sings at the very outset of track one, just a single acoustic guitar chord beating him to the speakers. It’s a smart move: as good as Stapleton’s band is, and as solid as his songs are, his voice is what won him those awards, set the world on fire with that Timberlake performance, and turned Traveller into a workhorse. His big, epic baritone both sounds instantly country and doesn’t sound quite like anything else in country music, past or present. Weaned on whiskey and too many weather-worn miles on a dusty highway, Stapleton’s voice has just enough grit to carry the more rock-driven numbers and just enough honey to make you feel every ounce of his regret during the somber ballads.
Both types of songs appear on From A Room: Volume 1. “Broken Halos,” the aforementioned opening track, is somewhere in between, a road-trip-ready anthem not so far removed from the title track (and album opener) from the last record. Track two doubles down on the somber, with a gorgeously aching cover of the Willie Nelson classic “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning,” while track three, “Second One to Know,” is a barnstorming scorcher with a ripping guitar solo. Just like that, three songs in, we’ve gotten a glimpse of Stapleton’s three main modes.
If From A Room: Volume 1 deserves a criticism, it’s that Stapleton doesn’t travel very far outside of his wheelhouse. After making their breakthrough records with Dave Cobb, both Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson fleshed out their sonic palettes and went in different directions. (Sturgill’s post-breakthrough album was especially radical, drenching everything in horns and strings, and causing some country purists to lambast him for making a record that “wasn’t actually country.”) All nine of the songs that make up the first installment of From A Room would have fit pretty comfortably on Traveller. In fact, the biggest departure is that whiskey, Stapleton’s favorite lyrical theme on the first record, doesn’t turn up once on From A Room.
Frankly, though, it’s good to hear Stapleton doubling down on the spartan classic country sound that made Traveller such a classic. At this point, Stapleton can sell out arenas and play stadiums alongside legends like Tom Petty, but you won’t hear any traces of arena country in these songs. On the contrary, most of From A Room: Volume 1 is made up of barroom country ballads, left sparse and gimmick-free thanks to Dave Cobb’s no-bullshit production. Most of the songs end up sounding like they were written for dive bars or half-empty clubs—though they will inevitably sound just fine echoing through huge arenas and amphitheaters this summer and fall.
Case-in-point is “Either Way,” a legitimately breathtaking song built from nothing other than Stapleton’s voice and a steadily picked acoustic guitar. The song isn’t new: country singer Lee Ann Womack cut it back in 2008, for a much more mainstream-sounding version. Like “Whiskey and You” from the last record (which was originally recorded by Tim McGraw), Stapleton went back through tunes he’d written and plucked “Either Way” for himself. His version ditches the mainstream trappings of Womack’s recording—the light percussion, the dramatic backing vocals, the flickers of pedal steel and fiddle—for a skeletal version that is haunting, pained, solitary, and heartbreaking. “We pass in the hall/On our way to separate rooms/The only time we ever talk/Is when the monthly bills are due,” goes the verse, describing a marriage that has faded from love to indifference. “I’m past the point of give a damn/And all my tears are cried,” Stapleton sings, and for how broken and resigned he sounds, you’d almost believe him. But then the chorus comes around, Stapleton’s voice turning from a whisper to a roar so wracked with emotion that, if it doesn’t send shivers shooting down your spine, you might not have a pulse anymore. “We can just go one like this/Say the word, we’ll call it quits/Baby you can go or you can stay/But I won’t love you either way.”
I firmly believe that Chris Stapleton is the best male vocalist making music right now, in any genre. Traveller offered ample proof of that claim, but “Either Way” makes it indisputable. It’s a song so perfect and so raw that it instantly locks you in its world, and for four minutes, you’re in the darkness of a memory, reliving the worst heartbreak of your life. The first time I heard it, I had to stop working, close my eyes, and just let myself feel the cathartic, exquisite pain of the lyrics and the voice. It’s a work of passion and storytelling that, despite its humble arrangement, begs for your complete attention. There is no better song this year, and I very much doubt there will be.
“Either Way” is probably the only song from From A Room: Volume 1 that lives up to the unimpeachable five-track run that started Traveller—still the best opening run from any album this decade. There is a reason this tune is right smack dab in the center of the album. It’s the eye of the storm, meant to trigger that same “replay side 1” impulse that “Parachute” does when you spin Traveller on wax. But From A Room is leaner and better paced, avoiding the bloat and indulgence that made the back half of Traveller something of an acquired taste. With a runtime of 32 and a half minutes, From A Room: Volume 1 is roughly half as long as its predecessor. And sure, this record isn’t actually finished yet; we’re still getting another disc. But the relatively quick running time is to Stapleton’s benefit, allowing mid-tempo groovers like “I Was Wrong” and “Without Your Love” (or menacing ballads like closer “Death Row”) to marinate in ways that comparable tracks from the last record—“Was It 26,” “The Devil Named Music,” “Outlaw State of Mind”—struggled to do for some listeners. Even “Them Stems”—a lightweight 12-bar blues about being in such a bad way that you smoke the very dregs of your weed stash—feels like it has a place here.
In the future, I’d certainly be interested in hearing something more “out there” and experimental from Chris Stapleton. From A Room is not so much a progression from Traveller as it is a refinement. But it’s also very far from being a sophomore slump. With a voice like the one he’s got, Stapleton could easily cut some pretty shoddy material and still make it sound like heaven. Instead, From A Room is a record filled with extremely well-written songs—about lost souls, broken hearts, and at least one outlaw living on borrowed time—performed by a guy who is completely sure of the artist he wants to be. Bring on Volume 2.