An artist like Chris Stapleton needs no introduction. By now country music listeners and those outside the greater Americana bubble are likely very familiar with the bearded Nashville troubadour. A somewhat overnight commercial success, Stapleton’s breakthrough came in 2015 after several years of behind the scenes songwriting and performing. That year he released his now quadruple-platinum debut album Traveller, which is widely considered one of the best mainstream country records of the 2010s. The record included well-known hits like “Parachute,” “Nobody To Blame,” and “Tennessee Whiskey.” Nowadays, Stapleton has established himself as an outlaw who relies on his roots and has the talent to interpret country songs with the touch and charisma of blues, soul, and R&B musicians.
Following his solo debut, Stapleton released two albums in 2017: From A Room: Volume 1 and From A Room: Volume 2, which both debuted at the number two spot on the Billboard 200 chart. Although both From A Room records received their recognition in the moment, the longevity and legacy of Traveller remains unmatched. Over five years later, Traveller is still in the Top 100 Albums on iTunes across all genres, and has finished inside of the Top 10 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart every year since its release.
Stapleton’s second and third records could have lacked the same notoriety that Traveller still has for any number of reasons. What resonates with listeners the most in that regard is that both From A Room records featured a number of older songs that ultimately felt like Traveller leftovers, rather than a genuine sophomore follow up. In hindsight, both of Stapleton’s 2017 records had their share of remarkable moments; however, his latest LP, Starting Over, is the true successor to Traveller that we have been waiting for.
Starting Over was released just over a week ago, with preview singles “Starting Over,” “Cold,” and “Arkansas” being shared in the weeks leading up to the entire album. The album features everything from Southern blues and soul to loud rockers that carry an extra edge to them. No matter the style of the song, Stapleton is one hundred percent in his element. Starting Over is comfortable. It’s a record you put on when you’re sitting alone by the fire, glass of whiskey in hand. It’s one that has the ability to make you feel at home and shake you to your core all at once. One of the more noteworthy moments comes on “Watch You Burn,” where Stapleton takes a step out of that comfort zone, and his vengeful deliverance sends chills down your entire body as he curses the evil man who opened gunfire at the Route 91 country music festival in Las Vegas a few years ago.
No matter the subject, Chris Stapleton’s overall performance and his ability to deliver words with his voice and tell a story, rather than just sing them, are always what sets his music apart from the rest of Nashville. On “Maggie’s Song,” Stapleton guides us along the journey of Maggie’s life. It starts with the day he found her in a shopping cart as “Just a fuzzy black pup,” and describes her relationship with his kids as his family grows. Sadly Maggie dies at the end, and Stapleton finds himself reflecting on his time spent with her as he sings “I can tell you right now/ That a dog has a soul.” This one is definitely a song that is going to tug on some heart strings, especially for dog owners.
The title track “Starting Over” is another song that seems simple and comfortable on the surface, but once you get deeper past the strumming of the acoustic guitar and the beautiful harmonies by Stapleton’s wife Morganne, the track becomes more intimate and relatable for the listener. It really paints the picture for the entire album as Stapleton has had time now to reflect on his career and his life in Nashville. Now that he has become an accomplished figurehead for mainstream country music in such a short amount of time, Stapleton finds himself hitting the reset button and staying true to what he knows when it comes not only to making music, but living his life with his wife and kids.
Overall, the album has a very nice balance of songs that are easygoing and sentimental, and songs that you can absolutely jam to. “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” just has something special about it right from the opening riff. You can really hear Stapleton’s Southern rock and blues roots step to the forefront and set the tone before his effortlessly soaring vocals come in to steal the show. “You Should Probably Leave” leans more towards Stapleton’s R&B and pop background, and sounds like it came straight out of a mid-2000s John Mayer record. If there is a sleeper that is going to become a hit in either country radio or even outside of Nashville, it is “You Should Probably Leave.”
It would be remiss not to mention the three exceptional covers on the album as well. Chris Stapleton has always had a knack for turning other musicians’ songs into his own, as we saw with “Tennessee Whiskey” on his debut album. “Old Friends” and “Worry B Gone” are both Guy Clark covers, and “Joy Of My Life” is a cover of a John Fogerty cut from the ’90s. All three songs are as equally instrumental to the structure and effectiveness of Starting Over as Stapleton’s originals.
Start to finish, there is not a single miss or filler track on Starting Over. This feels like a record that has the potential to get on a similar level as Traveller. It is without a doubt a top project to come out of Nashville in 2020, and it is going to be a favorite for a long time.