“From A Room: Volume 2” is only the second-best Chris Stapleton album of 2017, but that’s okay; it just means this follow-up to the similarly sized volume he put out six months ago has to settle for being the year’s second-best country record, period. No one else on either shore of the Cumberland in any danger of usurping Stapleton’s barely three-year-old status as the hero his genre was holding out for, not when he’s returning so quickly with another fiercely compact set that’s all Dixie and no dregs.
As saviors go, he’s a pretty modest messiah. His Southern-Paul-Rodgers growl only occasionally erupts into the higher key you’re waiting for it to kick into; if, as a lead guitarist, he’s the B.B. King of country, he takes his economical cues from other humble six-string heroes like Vince Gill and Brad Paisley, never letting a recorded solo outlast the half-minute mark. The shape of the records themselves is on the spare side, since all 18 songs he tracked for these two albums in the RCA studio’s vintage A Room could have fit on a single CD, but he knows the old-fashioned value of wrenching your heart out in 32 minutes. If one of his obvious heroes, Waylon Jennings, was lonesome, on’ry, and mean, Stapleton is all about being lonesome, honest, and lean.
When it comes down to it, Stapleton is more of a Willie than a Waylon. He plays the Jennings-style outlaw bit in “Hard Livin’,” one of the album’s two really hard-rocking numbers, but he’s done too good a job of beatifically sharing on-stage love for his wife and harmony singer, Morgane, to let us imagine shooting out the lights is any kind of nightly hobby — not that he doesn’t do a super job of selling it here for three minutes. But his best songs have Stapleton looking for Nelson-esque Zen in all the right places. “Tryin’ to Untangle My Mind” is essentially one of Willie’s search-for-meaning parties dressed up in blues-rock drag, and just the kind of anxiously cheery Zoloft a nation could use to round out an especially tangled year.
Stapleton is such a gentle giant, you can spend this half-hour-plus imagining we’re still living in the Don Williams era, not the Don Trump one. It’s not that “Volume 2” lacks for nervous tension — not with a Southern grunge stomper like the prison anthem “Midnight Train to Memphis,” or with a worthy-of-Jason-Isbell songwriting turn like “Scarecrow in the Garden,” which ends with the down-on-his-luck farmer narrator trying to choose between his Bible and a pistol, or the solo-acoustic “Drunkard’s Prayer,” where Stapleton’s devotional practice is entirely dependent on the humbling qualities of booze. But it’s the warmer songs that finally prevail, as with the good-time closer, “Friendship,” in which Stapleton covers a Stax tune associated with Pops Staples and says, “Your welfare is my concern/You weigh less than you think.” In 2017, that unabashed spirit of kindness makes him really feel like an outlaw.