Two years to the day, Chris Stapleton returns to the country music world with his sophomore album, From a Room: Volume 1. And in terms of his career, what a difference two years makes.
Back in 2015, Stapleton released Traveller to little fanfare outside of critical circles. His album release show at Mercury Lounge in New York City won enough hearts to merit some press clippings. And at the end of the week, he earned an impressive place on the country charts, moving 27,000 units. That’s a ranking similar to an album from a Texas country stalwart like Cody Johnson.
Even then, Stapleton simply owned a career as a guy who wrote hits for other people, but also played music too. His label, Mercury (an imprint of UMG), sent out a copy to every voting member of the Country Music Association. With it, they wrote a note urging voters to give the dang thing a listen.
Fast forward two years later, where Traveller still appears on the charts and Stapleton sells out every room he plays. New album From a Room: Volume 1 owns the front page of Apple Music, Spotify and every country publication out there. The record should own every chart this week.
In other words, the pressure is on.
Knowing that, it would be easy for Stapleton and family to double down on production and, you know, shiny things. But instead, From a Room serves as a sparse yet blistering showcase of Stapleton’s pained vocal and pointed pen.
Now, it’s not like Stapleton owned some sort of elaborate reputation. He and Dave Cobb came away from 2015 with a record lauded as a return to country’s form. But From a Room: Volume 1 somehow seems to feel even more stripped down than his first.
For much of Stapleton’s tour, he rolled through with a four-piece. And on much of the record, that’s exactly what you get. Guitar (not guitars plural — often just one guitar), bass, drums, his vocal and the unmatched harmony vocal from his wife Morgane.
“Up to No Good Livin'” features a pedal steel, and every now and then you may get a shaker or a tambourine. Seriously, that’s it.
And the record is only nine songs and 32 minutes long. But while teetering on the verge of underproduced, Volume 1 finds a strong focus not often seen in album releases. Lyrically, Stapleton still finds his comfort in forlorn and unrequited love. His strongest songs on the record are often the most brutal, too.
The back-to-back punch of “Either Way” and “I Was Wrong” feel like a call and answer on either side of love that feel equally remorseful. Few artists can deliver a break up song and a get back together song with as much conviction. Much less right next to each other on the same album.
But while Stapleton comes across in many ways as a country music savior, he’s most at home singing soul vocal licks over blues guitar. Make no mistake. He’s as much a hybrid as anything you’ll hear on pop country radio, and in some ways as far away from the roots of country music.
The difference is when you hear Stapleton belt out a throaty, impassioned plea, you believe him.
Will From a Room: Volume 1 earn the radio play it deserves counter to the other equally adventurous genre-bending artists? It’s possible. Songs like “Broken Halos” and “Without Your Love” own the kinds of hooks necessary to keep listeners. And you could sit there and listen to him and Morgane sing for days. Even over the album’s really only dull spot, “Them Stems.”
As the name implies, From a Room: Volume 1 is the first in a two-part series. The second half comes out later this year, and no doubt merits as much attention as the first. Album ender “Death Row” feels more like a “To Be Continued” than a closer, going out not with a bang but with a subtle question mark.
For now, sit back and let Stapleton’s voice remind you that when it comes down to it, we all just want to believe the people singing to us.