Stapleton is one of the best, most intriguing performers working in country music today.
Much like Willie Nelson before him, Chris Stapleton spent the majority of his early career penning hits for others, remaining largely in the shadows of public consciousness, appreciated without the name recognition for an artist that accompanies a hit record. All of that changed, much as it did for Nelson back in the ‘70s, with the release of 2015’s Traveller. Suddenly the name Chris Stapleton was more than merely a credit attributed to hits singles by Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker or even Luke Bryan. Instead, he was hailed, along with Sturgill Simpson, as the spiritual heir to the outlaw country music birthed by the likes of Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, among others.
Stripping things down to their barest essentials, From a Room, Vol. 1 places the focus squarely on Stapleton’s strengths as a writer and his whiskey-and-cigarettes infused blues-y rasp. It’s an approach that serves him well as the songs are given room to breathe and unfold organically in a manner rarely heard on a contemporary country album. Opening track “Broken Halos” immediately sets the tone with its minimalist arrangement of acoustic guitar, spare drums and ghostly bass. “Second One to Know” is a gritty blues number that deviates only slightly from the album’s established aesthetic with Stapleton’s phlegmatic delivery tearing through the mix like a runaway train, despite a sneering electric guitar’s best attempts to reign him in.
The gut-wrenching “Either Way” returns country to an interpersonally relatable level that forgoes stock lyrical tropes and stereotypes (pickup trucks, cheap beer, tractors) in favor of the harsh reality of a failing relationship “We pass in the hall/ On our way to separate rooms/ The only time we ever talk/ Is when the monthly bills are due/ We go to work, we go to church/ We fake the perfect life.” It’s emotionally devastating in all the right ways, Stapleton’s voice breaking as he embraces the vulnerability of the sentiments being expressed. It’s easily one of the most affecting tracks on the album and yet another fine entry into what is quickly becoming one of the best catalogs of contemporary country music.
“Up to No Good Livin’” fully embraces classic country tropes – complete with a gently swaying 6/8 feel – without sounding the slightest bit like pastiche. His approach is so thoroughly of the grand country music tradition that it feels less a modern-day continuation than direct representation of an era that ceased to exist before Stapleton even made his way out of the womb. “I used to drink like a fish and run like a dog/ I’ve done a whole lotta shit not permitted by law/ People call me the Picasso of painting the town/ I’ve finally grown up and I’ve finally changed/ And that somebody I was is somebody I ain’t/ But she finds it hard to believe that she’s turned me around/ You know I’ll probably die before I live all my up to no good livin’ down.” It’s a brilliant lyric that could just as easily have come from the throats of Nelson, Jennings, Kristofferson, David Allen Coe or even Johnny Cash as Stapleton.
Of course, it’s not all straight-faced serious and despondently maudlin country downers. The desperate pothead anthem “Them Stems” is borderline laugh-out-loud and a much needed respite from Stapleton’s otherwise stone-faced demeanor throughout. “This mornin’ I smoked them stems/ Yeah that’s the kinda shape I’m in” and “My dealer’s been out of town/ And that’s really got me down/ I hope he ain’t up in the pen again” are just a couple of the song’s choice phrases from the life of a desperate pothead.
This bit of levity is decidedly short lived, however, as closing track “Death Row” takes on the classic country music convict narrative. Set against a measured acoustic guitar line, rumbling bass and ghostly percussion (check out the eerie cymbal scrapes that set the tone for what’s to come), “Death Row” finds Stapleton effortlessly moving between a full-throated rasp and quietly soulful blues-y approach that rises and falls with the song’s chord progression. Much like the aforementioned Simpson, Chris Stapleton is the real deal, and with From A Room, Vol. 1 he further solidifies his position as one of the best, most intriguing performers working in country music today.