Country Jukebox Jury: Chris Stapleton – Starting Over

Chris Stapleton will one day be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Bobbie Gentry, Steve Earle and the great Brett James are in the Class of 2020, along with Kent Blazy, writer of big hits for Garth Brooks like If Tomorrow Never Comes.

Chris’s 2015 album Traveller is still in the Top 5 of the country album chart. As new fans are turned on to country, they look at what is popular and listen to it and recommend it to new fans. This is why the UK album chart is full of acts like ABBA, Oasis, Arctic Monkeys, Fleetwood Mac, Queen and Eminem. By the way, Bob Marley’s Legend has just spent its 950th week on the UK chart.

Chris Stapleton has been on the country chart in the US for a measly 288 weeks. He was launched as an album act in a world of bros and superstars, although Nobody To Blame eventually clambered into the top ten and Chris had his moment at the CMA Awards in November performing with Justin Timberlake. Then a star was born and since then Chris has only been away on paternity or through injury. He has five Grammy awards (two for Best Country Album) seven ACMs and ten CMAs, including four Best Males in a row. Nine songs he has co-written are among ASCAP’s most performed of any given year, including his own Broken Halos, the Country Song of the Year at the 2018 GRAMMY Awards.

He is the most reluctant superstar in America, close only to Sam Hunt. I’d love to hear them duet. As it is, Starting Over arrives in an environment which Stapleton started. We would not have Luke Combs without Stapleton.

Back in May 2015, when Traveller was released and Luke Combs was still developing his chops, the two biggest songs in country music were Take Your Time by Sam Hunt and Girl Crush by Little Big Town. On radio, the likes of A Guy Walk Into A Bar, Raise Em Up, Don’t It, Smoke, Sippin On Fire, Wild Child and Kelsea Ballerini’s first number one Love Me Like You Mean it were on heavy rotation.

Nowhere to be seen are songs like Traveller, Whiskey and You (a song written by Chris and originally an album track from a mid-2000s Tim McGraw album) or, for the moment, Chris’ epochal cover of Tennessee Whiskey, which were gaining fans in the middle of 2015 but would gain more ears into 2016.

Starting Over was rolled out with three pre-released singles, the punchy Arkansas, the lovely title track with fluttering harmonies singing of lucky pennies and four-leaf clovers and Cold, which showcased the voice of his generation with a full orchestra and is smartly placed as track three. Expect it to be heard at major award shows in the coming year.

Starting Over, as with his previous three albums, is produced by Dave Cobb. The formula isn’t completely the same: the most interesting novelty on album four is that Chris is working with two of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, the great Mike Campbell and organ player Benmont Tench. Chris has plenty of rocking tunes in his catalogue so it’s no big surprise that he has picked these guys, who are short of a frontman since Tom Petty passed away.

As well as the pre-released tracks, the 11 Stapleton compositions on the album include Watch You Burn, Chris’ take on the Route 91 festival shooting, which was written with Campbell. ‘Only a coward would pick up a gun’, wails Chris over barely any backing at all, allowing his words to puncture the air and connecting him and the listener. The guitar work, when it comes, is dirty and punchy. I imagine Mother Mavis Staples, with whom Chris is out on tour in 2021, will join him on this protest song where the chorus ‘You’re gonna get your turn’ becomes a chanted message of defiance. The final minute is chilling and is testament to the work of Stapleton, Campbell and Cobb.

As on Traveller, there are plenty of bluesy pieces here. Devil Always Made Me Think Twice and Hillbilly Blood sound swampy, and the latter contains a rude word. Whiskey Sunrise, meanwhile, is a triple-time sad song written with the late Tim Krekel, also from Kentucky.

As the very poppy You Should Probably Leave started up, I was not surprised to see two huge A-Listers work with Chris on a soulful tune which may well become a radio smash. Ashley Gorley and Brad Paisley’s good friend Chris DuBois have helped him to write a song in the Muscle Shoals soul tradition, with Morgane providing top-notch harmonies.

Some tunes add to the pile of songs about Morgane, such as When I’m With You, written when Chris turned 40 a couple of years ago. Joy of My Life is a John Fogerty song which Chris delivers with gusto and panache in which he calls himself ‘the luckiest man alive’. I hope John gets Chris a nice gift for Christmas with the royalties.

Chris knows his heritage and opts to record two songs by the songwriter’s songwriter, Guy Clark, another Americana artist. At the Country Music Hall of Fame, there is a model of Guy’s workroom which attracted the likes of Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. Worry B Gone and Old Friends are tucked together on the album’s second side. The former is a drinking song with a Status Quo-y, rockabilly feel, and sounds like a lot of fun. The latter is soft and tender and features Chris narrating verses over acoustic guitar and piano. If it turns his listeners on to Guy’s work, his work is done.

Maggie’s Song (‘Be as free as you are wild’) is the most majestic song I can think of about a dog. It contains a solo from Benmont Tench on the Hammond and the sort of rootsy shuffle that The Band were doing 50 years ago to invent Americana. Chris breaks up with Nashville, TN on the album’s final track, in character as a struggling songwriter who is finally giving up his dream. It’s a wonderful metaphor and will resonate with writers of country songs who could only have imagined Chris’ reluctant status as the critically acclaimed and commercially successful performer of his generation.

Next year Chris is to tour with Mavis Staples, as mentioned, giving fans two staples for the price of one. Also out on the road with him are The Highwomen, with one date pencilled in for Madison Square Garden and two at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. That’ll be one hell of a show, vaccine permitting. I’ve seen Stapleton twice at the O2 and his understated show is all about the tunes. The package is there: riffs, blues, rock, roots, soul, gospel, a dash of pop and above all American music. 5/5

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