Chris Stapleton, it seems, has little interest in being famous. Five years on from the CMA Awards team-up with Justin Timberlake that made Stapleton a superstar, he’s yet to cash in on his A-list status in any of the significant way, barring perhaps playing concerts in bigger rooms. His follow-up to 2015’s Traveller could have been gargantuan. He easily could have called in another favor from Timberlake for a guest feature, and you have to assume that other famous pop stars, country stars, songwriters, and producers were lining up to work with him. Yet, rather than deliver a bid for crossover success, Stapleton dropped a pair of albums that were, essentially, b-side collections. From A Room: Vol. 1 and From A Room: Vol. 2, released roughly six months apart in 2017, were made up of covers and songs that Stapleton had written during his long career as a writer for a Nashville publishing agency. The songs didn’t grapple with Stapleton’s newfound fame, nor did they really push any boundaries in terms of sonics or structure. Instead, both records played like low-stakes almost-demo collections, with spartan production, no notable features, and no-frills production from Dave Cobb, the same guy who’d sat behind the boards for Traveller.
Starting Over, Stapleton’s fourth full-length LP, tweaks the playbook a bit but doesn’t throw it away. Cobb is still in the producer’s chair, even though Stapleton probably could have gotten just about any producer in the pop world—a Greg Kurstin, perhaps, or a Jack Antonoff—to take his call and help him craft a career leap forward. And the songs still sound like Chris Stapleton songs, with no massive departures to reconfigure what we might expect from one of modern country music’s greatest voices in the future. The changes that do happen are subtler, though they are appreciated. One important difference this time around is that, from what I can tell at least, it appears Stapleton has been writing. A core letdown of the From A Room albums—both of which I enjoy greatly, for the record—was just how out of time they felt. When an artist goes through a meteoric rise like the one Stapleton experienced in 2015, you want to hear how that journey affects them. The A Room albums, by simple virtue of being made up almost entirely of old songs, didn’t give that window into Stapleton’s soul that great songwriting can often provide. With Starting Over, these songs feel more present and prescient, which in turn makes the album sound immediately more vital than either of its predecessors did.
There are also some new collaborators on the board this time around, most notably Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, of Tom Petty’s beloved Heartbreakers. Having those two around is a perfect fit for Stapleton, who I’ve increasingly thought of over the past few years as this generation’s Petty. Just like Petty always did, Stapleton has this mystifying power to write simple songs that feel like they’ve always been here, and that worm their way deeper into your soul with every listen. With Campbell, Stapleton writes two of Starting Over’s best songs: “Arkansas,” a visceral blast of bar-band rock ‘n’ roll; and “Watch You Burn,” a scathing evisceration of the gunman behind the massacre at Las Vegas’s Route 91 Harvest country music festival in 2017. The former is an example of the kind of kinetic live-show-ready country rock that Stapleton always elevates with his big, cavernous voice. The latter, which builds into an intense explosion of guitar and gospel choir howls, is one of the moments on the record that feels like genuinely new territory for Stapleton. Even when he’s trawling older ground, though, Stapleton sounds thoroughly in his wheelhouse here. That’s certainly the case with the three carefully-chosen cover songs (lovely takes on John Fogerty’s “Joy of My Life” and Guy Clark’s “Worry B Gone” and “Old Friends”), or on originals that sound like vintage vinyl (soulful beauties like “When I’m with You” or “You Should Probably Leave”). And then there’s the title track, a bright acoustic strummer that sounds like a direct nod to Petty’s own “Wildflowers.”
In interviews, Stapleton has said he began the journey toward Starting Over in 2018, with a trip down to an unfamiliar Muscle Shoals studio. The magic wasn’t happening, so he and his band tabled the record and headed back to their busy touring schedule. That false start eventually led Stapleton back to RCA Studio A (the “A Room” referenced in the last albums’ titles), but also gave him the time to think more critically and deliberately about what he wanted to accomplish with album number four. The resulting disc dispenses with some of the more demo-sounding aspects of the From A Room albums, opting instead for something more along the lines of the widescreen, fully-realized Traveller sound. Dave Cobb is a wonderful producer, with one of the best track records in modern music, but if there’s one drawback to artists working with him, it’s that he tends to work fast and doesn’t always send musicians back in for a second take or an overdub when doing so might be advisable. But just as Jason Isbell’s Reunions from earlier this year sounded a little bolder and richer than its predecessors, Starting Over sparkles with virtuosity and musical depth that wasn’t always there on the previous albums. Splendid guitarwork and gorgeous tones litter this album from start to finish, particularly the Clapton-esque licks of “You Should Probably Leave” and the punchy, dirty growls of the guitar on “Watch You Burn.” On “Cold,” we get the addition of strings—a Stapleton first—plus some B3 organ from Mr. Tench, for an agonized love-gone-wrong torch song. It sounds like Stapleton’s audition for the next Bond theme, and it’s legitimately thrilling. And of course, Stapleton’s voice is as impressive as ever, sounding just as good on the tender, melodic love songs as it does on the crunchy southern rock songs.
“Well the road rolls out like a welcome mat/To a better place than the one we’re at,” Stapleton sings on “Starting Over,” one of several lyrics on the album that feel particularly apt for the bitter challenges 2020 has brought. (Three songs later, on “When I’m with You,” it’s “Got a good job/And I’m thankful to be working when so many good people are not” that rings like a prophetic gut punch.) The band had Starting Over in the can in February, before COVID-19 broke the world, but as often happens with great music, the album somehow feels even more resonant for this moment than the one in which it was recorded. The album’s emotional wallops just hit harder now, whether it’s “Maggie’s Song,” a musical tip of the hat to The Band’s “The Weight” whose lyrics tell the story of Stapleton’s late family dog; or “Nashville, TN,” a bittersweet farewell to the city that Stapleton had to leave to get away from the limelight. But it’s the title track that gives the album it’s beating heart, just as “Wildflowers” was the anchor to Petty’s masterpiece:
This might not be an easy time There's rivers to cross and hills to climb Some days we might fall apart And some nights might feel cold and dark When nobody wins afraid of losing And the hard roads are the ones worth choosing Someday we'll look back and smile And know it was worth every mile
Words like these speak to Stapleton’s talent as a songwriter: enough writerly craft for his work to feel graceful and full of beauty, but vague enough to leave room for listeners’ experiences. Right now, it’s hard to listen to the song and not hear it as a prayer for resilience in the midst of a pandemic that seems far from over. Someday, maybe we’ll be able to hear Stapleton sing it from the stage of an arena, and to feel the words as something celebratory instead of something heavy and bittersweet. That possibility seems impossibly far off, as I write these words. But then again, as Stapleton sings, “The hard roads are the ones worth choosing.” We’ve got a hard road ahead, but the good news is that Starting Over is the perfect soundtrack for the trip.