Charting His Own Course
With his quadruple-platinum 2015 album, Traveller, behind him, and his own exhibit planned in Nashville’s Country Music Hall Of Fame Museum, Chris Stapleton’s star is clearly in the ascendancy. On the one hand his cowboy hat, husky whiskey-bar voice and long beard shouts ‘country’ loud and clear, but his popular collaborations with Pink and Justin Timberlake hint at much broader pretensions. In this context, his latest album Starting Over (13 November, 2020; Mercury Nashville), is of particular interest; which way is he heading?
The answer is clear: his own sweet way, as this offering contains country and R&B, but along with the undeniably sentimental numbers it also contains hard and devastating tracks.
On Starting Over Stapleton has again teamed up with Nashville producer Dave Cobb, who plays to his charge’s strengths by giving primacy to his voice and lyrics. As with Stapleton’s previous albums, he does cover versions, which here include John Fogerty’s Joy of My Life and Guy Clark’s Worry Be Gone and Old Friends; but the other 11 tracks are penned by himself and his various collaborators.
The album kicks off with the stripped down acoustic lead single, Starting Over, which is about the importance of having someone who loves and supports you to get you through the days. Touchingly, Stapleton is accompanied on this track by his wife, Morgane Stapleton, who contributes harmonies, while the Heartbreakers’s Benmont Tench adds some lovely touches on his Hammond B-3 organ. Stapleton might have been expected to play his Gibson J-45 when playing this track live, as he has said it is his favourite acoustic, but it seems his life is less structured these days. As he explains on the opening track: “The road opens out like a welcome mat, to a better place than the one we’re at… [And] I ain’t got no kind of plan.”
This message is reinforced by the stomping southern rock of the following song Devil Always Made Me Think Twice that gives way to the standout track Cold, which again reminds us of Stapleton’s powerful soaring voice. More hard rock follows on Arkansas, which was co-written with Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and features gravely vocals and crunchy electric guitars. “Gotta get down, gotta get down to Arkansas, Having so much fun that it’s probably a little bit against the law,” he sings.
The brooding and bluesy track Hillbilly Blood is a standout track, though you possibly need to be a devoted dog-lover to fully enjoy the sugar-sweet Maggie’s Song, which is a tribute to the beloved pup that the Stapletons reportedly found and rescued.
This, and a couple of the following tracks, provide a lull before the shocking storm of Watch You Burn, which tells the story of the shooter who slaughtered 60 concert-goers in Las Vegas in 2017. Again co-written with Campbell, Watch You Burn builds beautifully as Stapleton spits rage at the gunman: “Son you’re going to get your turn, Devil gonna watch you burn.”
Starting Over finds Stapleton at the peak of his powers. He is one of top country acts in the world but that has not stopped him exploring other avenues. And like all great artists from Lou Reed to Bob Dylan, he is in charge of his destiny and charting his own course.