Chris Stapleton’s “From A Room: Volume 1” is not in any literal sense a Willie Nelson tribute record, but at times it sure feels like one. That’s not just because Stapleton did pick a somewhat forgotten old Willie hit as the one outside song choice for this, his sophomore release, or because he has Nelson’s highly recognizable harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, tooting along at regular intervals. It’s more about how many of these originals have the loose, ramshackle-poetry feel of anthems Willie would’ve cut if they’d been written 40 years earlier.
There’s also, not incidentally, the fact that Stapleton came along in 2015 and almost instantaneously established himself as the first country star that pretty much all of America could agree to agree about since a certain weed-smoking, braided Buddha became our favorite genre-transcending uniter. “From A Room: Volume 1,” arriving two years to the day after the first appearance of Stapleton’s two-million-selling “Traveller,” cements the singer’s status as the old-soul upstart — 39 going on 84 — who, like his predecessor, may be the sole representative of country music in a few hundred thousand record collections.
But focusing just on the Willie comparison neglects other things Stapleton happens to be good at, such as singing like an old-school soul man and playing the Fender Jazzmaster just like ringing a bell. Once “From A Room” has opened with a few tracks that surprisingly skew a bit closer to traditional country than the mostly Southern-rock-based “Traveller” did, he spends the second half of the record focused on his lesser recognized side as a semi-hardcore bluesman. So, basically, we’re talking about a Willie Nelson with the pipes of a Paul Rodgers and hands of a Freddie King. (In case there’s any doubt, that is an endorsement.)
“Traveller” hasn’t left the top 30 since Stapleton first pierced the national consciousness by duetting with Justin Timberlake at the CMA Awards a year and a half ago — will “From A Room” reach similar peaks? Not likely, but the “Volume 1” part of the title — and its nine-song, 33-minute length — almost seem like a hedge against any sophomore-letdown discussions: Hey, if it doesn’t measure up, it’s only half of the follow-up to his mega-hit (with “Volume 2” coming in the fall). But, leaving aside the leave-‘em-wanting-more part, it’s just as solid as its predecessor, and there’s something to be said about working this many hard-luck love stories, stoner chuckles, mortal laments, and blazing licks into a pre-CD-length half-hour.
The album finally affords fans the chance to pick up, “I Was Wrong,” a slow burner Stapleton has been playing on the road for years, and a blues chaser that John Mayer would sever his best callouses for. Though he usually holds back the full-throttle melisma that could distort your speakers at any moment, Stapleton does understand when the time is right to turn “I” into a nine-syllable word, and this particular penance is the place for it. He takes the tail out from between his legs and indulges in a lighter form of the blues with “Them Stems,” a shuffle about being so destitute and dope-poor that you’re smoking ‘em even if you don’t got ‘em. And what could follow that but the deep, dark, penitentiary-set “Death Row,” which may or may not describe a near-future when Jeff Sessions has had his way on weed.
The more ‘70s-country-esque front half of the record veers from the sobriety of “Broken Halos,” a lament for the dearly departed, to “Up to No Good Livin’,” a steel guitar-driven, seriocomic study of how hard it is to live down an old hard-living even after an outlaw has been through the program. “Second One to Know,” as heard in Stapleton’s second slot on “Saturday Night Live,” is the one outright rocker here, but it starts to fade out after two and a half minutes, it has a bit too much economy for its own good.
The cover of Willie’s 1982 No. 2 hit, “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning,” is a triumphal example of old-school hangdog country. But Stapleton saves the serious heartache for “Either Way,” a quiet masterpiece that’s one of the most boldly and bitterly descriptive divorce songs ever written. It’s such a courageous choice for a first single at country radio that you wonder if the marketing department just said, “This thing is going to sell with or without country radio, so … what the hell?” When was the last time a major label gave country radio a single consisting of just voice and acoustic guitar, with a sentiment so bleak it might’ve made Hank himself suggest Stapleton “bro” it up? But his scarily raw vocals do induce chills, which might make this seemingly wildly uncommercial pick a useful summer single after all.
You could wish that after all this anticipation Stapleton had offered fans a heftier dose of material at once, but there’s something about a slightly shorter, old-LP vein that befits his humility. Country has been holding out for a hero so long, even a display of superpowers as modest as “From A Room” feels epic enough.