The top two bestselling albums in country music this year are both by the same guy. Chris Stapleton’s From A Room: Volume 1 (released back in May) and Traveller (released all the way back in May 2015) are unstoppable juggernauts despite the fact that neither ever notched a major radio hit. Depending on just how strong the Stapleton support is throughout the holiday season, there’s an outside chance he could own the entire top three for 2017, thanks to the fact that he just released his second album of the year: From A Room: Volume 2.
A cynical person would see Stapleton’s decision to release two albums in the same year as a shameless ploy to sell more records. There probably is something of a calculated approach there, given that Stapleton 1) still sells albums at all, and 2) thrives on full-length statements rather than singles. What’s probably truer, though, is that Stapleton just cut a lot of quality material while in the studio with producer extraordinaire Dave Cobb, and wanted to put it all out there for his fans to enjoy.
As is, the two pieces of From A Room could very easily have been grouped together into one longish LP. The 18 songs that make up these two records amount to just under 65 minutes of music—two minutes more than what Stapleton gave the world on Traveller. Even as a huge fan of Traveller, though, I can admit that the album was bloated and overlong. The second half, especially, is an acquired taste, packed with long, dark, jam-filled songs about heartbreak, drinking, smoking weed, and the outlaw state of mind.
What Stapleton has done with both installments of From A Room is trim the fat. Each disc is about a half hour long and sticks around for nine songs, most of which clock in around the 3 to 3:30 mark. The longest song on either album, Volume 2’s soulful closing track “Friendship,” is 4:25—shorter than six of Traveller’s 14 cuts. The result is that both From A Room albums are easier listens than Traveller—particularly Volume 2, which goes down like the smoothest whiskey you’ve ever tasted.
If there’s a complaint to be made about Volume 2, it’s that it feels very workmanlike—not a bad thing in general, but probably an adjective that Stapleton is a bit early in his career to be embracing. The only song here that could feasibly be said to be “breaking new ground” for Stapleton is the haunting “Scarecrow in the Garden,” a haunting, Irish-folk-flavored story song about a man on the brink of losing the farm his family has owned for generations. The closing lines—“I’ve been sitting here all morning/I was sitting here all night/There’s a bible in my left hand/And a pistol in my right”—echo the dark foreshadowing in the last verse of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” Uncoincidentally, “Scarecrow in the Garden” is Volume 2’s best song.
Part of the reason Stapleton isn’t really taking chances on this record (or its predecessor) is that the songs are old. Stapleton has gone on record saying that he’s hardly written any new material since Traveller made him one of country music’s biggest stars. Luckily, Stapleton’s previous job as a Nashville songwriter-for-hire means that he has a ton of songs in his back pocket that he’s never recorded before. Those songs form the backbone of the From A Room albums, with a few covers thrown in for good measure.
It’s to Stapleton’s credit that he makes the covers sound like songs that you’d never want to hear anyone else sing. (It’s also fitting, since Stapleton’s signature song is “Tennessee Whiskey,” another cover.) Volume 2 is bookended by covers—the jangly, heartfelt “Millionaire” and the aforementioned “Friendship.” Both shine thanks to Stapleton’s incredible vocals, but reach a higher plain thanks to other factors. Stapleton’s wife Morgane is the real star of “Millionaire,” providing explosive harmonies that poignantly underline the song’s message, about how finding the right person to share your life with makes you rich. “Friendship,” meanwhile, soars thanks to Stapleton’s underrated guitar playing. When you sing better than just about anyone else on the planet, people tend to overlook your other skills.
The other songs on Volume 2 tend to fall into one of two categories: gritty outlaw country barnburners and downtrodden, slow-burning heartbreakers. If Volume 1 was lacking at all, it was in the former category. The only true “rock” song was “Second One to Know,” which pales in comparison to both outlaw highlights from Volume 2. The first, “Hard Livin’,” thrives on a sludgy riff and a chorus that seems particularly funny coming from a guy whose first record was largely about alcohol: “I never thought it would happen to me/But this hard livin’ ain’t as easy as it used to be.” The second, “Midnight Train to Memphis,” is a song Stapleton previously cut with his old bluegrass band, The SteelDrivers. The From A Room interpretation is a definite improvement, doubling down on the electric guitars and chugging bass and turning up the volume on Stapleton’s anguished howls.
Where Volume 1 thrived, meanwhile, was in its ballads, from the stark divorce narrative of “Either Way” to the creeping menace of closing track “Death Row.” Volume 2 isn’t quite as miraculous on this front, but the slower songs are still dynamite. “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight” puts the focus on Stapleton’s vocal in a restrained guitar-drums-bass arrangement; “Drunkard’s Prayer” is an acoustic confessional that recalls “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,” a Traveller standout; and “A Simple Song” is one of the record’s best songs, a lovely number about turning to family to seek solace from life’s woes.
Chris Stapleton has justifiably gotten a lot of acclaim and good buzz for the From A Room albums so far. Volume 1 notched a sales figure of 219,000 equivalent units in its first week and went on to win the CMA Award for Album of the Year. (Stapleton also scooped up Male Vocalist of the Year for the third year running.) Volume 1 managed a few Grammy nominations, too, both in Best Country Album and Best Country Solo Performance (for “Either Way”). A funny thing happened in the midst of all those accolades, though: Traveller started outselling From A Room: Volume 1 each week on the Billboard country albums chart.
There’s a reason that Traveller has had such longevity. That album feels like a classic, from the songs and the scope to the Cinderella story narrative. (The Justin Timberlake CMA performance still pops up in my recommended videos on YouTube regularly, even though I’ve probably watched it two dozen times.) In comparison, it’s easy for the From A Room albums to feel a little slight. These records are collections of songs, whereas Traveller was a unified album inspired by the death of Stapleton’s father. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Traveller starts with maybe the best opening stretch of any album this decade, spitting out five songs in a row that surpass anything on either From A Room disc (give or take an “Either Way”).
Still, From A Room is anything but a sophomore slump. These are incredibly well-written songs, delivered with confidence (and a complete lack of indulgence) from one of the finest performers in modern music. Next time around, I’ll probably be looking for Stapleton to transcend that pesky “workmanlike” adjective and make something that takes a few chances and pushes his sound in a new direction. And for the sake of country music in general, I hope he starts writing songs again—both for himself and for other artists. For now, though, I’m perfectly content to enjoy the simple charms of a master singing simple songs. There aren’t many people alive who can do that better than Chris Stapleton.