Review Summary: Damn good country.
Chris Stapleton has the unenviable position of being a bonafide mainstream country superstar that’s being forced to carry the non-bro country torch. He’s a large, bearded forty-two year old man with a powerful voice and way with a guitar. He came into the 2015 Country Music Awards relatively unknown and completely cleaned up, beating out names like Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, and Kenny Chesney for Best Male Vocalist while also walking away with Album of the Year. While there’s absolutely no question that he deserved to win these amongst that competition, the CMAs aren’t necessarily known for parity in their judging, clearly shown by Stapleton losing that same award to Luke Combs just five days ago. While Stapleton has contemporaries that may be more talented than him, many of them would not be experiencing near the success they would be seeing if not for Stapleton’s 2015 breakthrough. Since the success of Traveller
, he’s released two albums that were largely previously-released materials. Starting Over
brought forth an interesting challenge - How do you follow up on an album that effectively launched the recent revival of country music? The answer, as Stapleton saw fit, is to create damn good music.
Stapleton is practically the poster child for the Americana vs. Country debate and, arguably, the reason why that debate exists in the mainstream. Starting Over
is really an embodiment of what Americana music now is, namely an amalgamation of American roots music influences, being largely Southern soul, rock, and country. The title track/opener certainly sounds much more country, with its jangling acoustic guitars and simple percussion creating a very fitting, upbeat ode to a partner. Then you have songs like “Arkansas”, co-written with Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which is a rocking romp of a road trip song, and “Whiskey Sunrise”, which is a slow burn of a powerful blues song with maybe the best vocal performance Stapleton has ever put in, with its mix of raspy shouts and gentle vibrato rocking the listener to their core.
Each song shows that Stapleton is a masterful songwriter. Before his solo career, the man had co-written six country numbers on hits for a variety of artists from George Strait to Luke Bryan and had even written hits for artists like Adele and Ed Sheeran. His voice and guitar skills are only matched by his ability to write a hook. If some of these names scare you, they shouldn’t - Stapleton is able to take his pop sensibilities and roots influences and combine them in masterful ways. “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” is a Stapleton original, but actually first appeared on Hailey Whitters’ The Dream
from earlier this year (one of the best pop-country releases of the past few years). Whitters’ rendition is a slow burn, almost sinister pop-country song, while the version that appears on Starting Over
is a classic Southern rocker. However, versions work incredibly well because of Stapleton’s songwriting prowess.
With all of this being said, what draws people to Chris Stapleton is his ability to craft a hook, but what keeps them around is how human his work is. He’s got soul and passion behind his voice. You can hear it in the Petty-inspired rock songs, such as “Watch You Burn”, an angry number about the Vegas shootings and other mass tragedies that ends with a tumultuous minute of driving Southern rock backed with a gospel choir. However, you hear it equally in the slower songs, which is where the country side of Stapleton is most clear. “Cold” has a swell of strings and Stapleton singing of heartbreak, while “Joy of My Life” is more true to Stapleton’s true life, as it's a beautiful love song to his wife (who adds harmonies to the album), while “Maggie’s Song” will turn any pet owner into a sappy mess. Stapleton has managed to straddle commercial and “artistic” success by creating incredibly earnest music that is a joy to listen to and masterfully made. Starting Over
does not break from that winning formula.
Chris Stapleton isn’t the artist that you want if you’re looking for intrinsic deep dives into the human condition. He’s not the artist that is going to keep your mind whirring from complex compositions and even more complex metaphors. Chris Stapleton is
going to give you songs about loving your partner, a road trip through the Ozark Mountains, or the life of a dog, and he’s going to fill them with soul, feeling, and plenty of whiskey-related anecdotes. That’s not to say that Stapleton produces simple music. He has perhaps the most powerful voice this side of Americana, incredibly human and heartfelt lyrics, and a rocking band to back him up to all of it. With those pieces, he manages to make Starting Over
the exact definition of an excellent country/Americana album.