Starting Over

Chris Stapleton

Mercury Nashville, 2020

http://www.chrisstapleton.com

REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/16/2021

The country music scene in 2021 is a fascinating clash of long-held, traditional beliefs up against fresh-faced, more diverse and inclusive mindsets. The sheer amount of money and exposure to be made in the genre has unwittingly set off a chain reaction of questioning as to what exactly country music should look and sound like in the current era.

For all the massive success enjoyed by your Luke Bryans, Carrie Underwoods, and Blake Sheltons, a glossy sheen envelops their music that I would argue caters to the lowest common denominator. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for that; not every song has to be”‘Good Vibrations.” But my biggest problem with what passes for the most “popular” in country music is that it could be better. The stories could avoid the cliche, the stereotypes, etc.

There’s a subset of artists currently on the scene that would probably align themselves more so with a genre description of Americana of Outlaw Country. Chris Stapleton, for one, has planted his flag firmly in the realm of mass commercialization, yet his music never comes across as having sold its soul artistically or musically to gain that popularity. His peers continue to respect his output, even as he racks up the sales and awards.

I have been a fan of Stapleton ever since stumbling across his debut solo record Traveler a few years back. His voice is immediately arresting, but it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it didn’t have stellar songwriting to back it up. Over the course of his next two albums, Stapleton ably demonstrated that the listening public shouldnmy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 ’t expect any decline in those capabilities in the near future. But after the 2017 release of From A Room Vol. 2, Stapleton was relatively quiet for a couple of years, at least from a solo artist standpoint. It wasn’t until November of 2020 that we received another record: Starting Over.

The title of Starting Over belies its sentiment; this record doesn’t feature a Chris Stapleton who has decided to go back to basics, and strip down his sound. Instead, you hear an artist making the effort to add depth to his material, and push a little farther out on the ledge than some of his contemporaries might feel comfortable doing. For instance, using a full string section on the piano driven ballad “Cold” is a genius move, reinforcing Stapleton’s absolutely killer vocal, and providing shades of early Paul Buckmaster. There’s an emotion resonance that would not have been present in the song’s underlying, skeletal form. 

There might be an assumption that the lyrics to a song titled “Hillbilly Blood” or “Arkansas” could lead into the cloying or take the easy way out in portraying the subject matter. What Stapleton does instead though, is lean into darker imagery, or the straight up parody. While stylistically, “Arkansas” doesn’t really resemble a classic era Beach Boys song, it’s hard not to read the lyrics as a Southern take on “Fun Fun Fun.” You contrast the fast-driving, fun-loving narrator of “Arkansas” with “Hillbilly Blood” and it’s day and night in tone and imagery. One would seemingly fall under the established canon of a country song, the other takes the opposite tack. It’s that dichotomy which makes listening to Chris Stapleton such a pleasure; he is not afraid to go to places that other artists would avoid.

One of the tracks that received the most attention upon this album’s release was “Watch You Burn,” Stapleton’s musical response to the tragic Las Vegas shooting of October 2017. I wouldn’t characterize Stapleton’s music as generally having a feeling of currency; to be frank it is one of the aspects of his songwriting that I’ve long enjoyed. But here, the entire incident clearly sparked anger that was pent up for years and now has the chance to be fully realized both lyrically and musically speaking. Stapleton attacks the words with savagery, spitting out righteous condemnations over a gospel choir repeatedly reminding the subject matter “you’re gonna get your turn...” Hearing Stapleton in this manner comes off as genuinely terrifying; it is a side of his personality that hasn’t been revealed previously.

It’s an impressive streak that Chris Stapleton is on right now; he’s reached the point where anything he releases is most likely going to be worth a listen. Starting Over is a continued refinement of the talents that he has demonstrated for years, and consequently it marks a new high point. Where he goes from here is up to him obviously, but it’s a journey I’m fully on board for.

Rating: A-

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