November brings not just a new Chris Stapleton album but the fifth anniversary of the signal moment that made him one of the most significant figures in contemporary country music: the CMA Awards that had Justin Timberlake joining the then-niche artist for a viral duet of “Tennessee Whiskey.” From then, Stapleton has been that thing that is almost rarer in music than in politics: a consensus-builder, whose humble, rootsy sensibilities and gifts as a growler and an electric guitarist have let him patch together more constituencies than anyone since Willie Nelson’s hippie-and-redneck-uniting heyday.
You can certainly equate his appeal with Willie’s, though his inherent volume as a belter means the comparisons go only so far. At Stapleton’s best, sometimes you imagine you’re listening to a mythical “Gregg Allman Sings the Willie Nelson Songbook” album. There are plenty of these moments in his fourth release, “Starting Over.” He has Nelson’s tender touch, but his bluesy side is much louder; his is a part-acoustic, part-stinging approach in which Nelson’s Trigger meets B.B. King’s Lucille.
“Starting Over” doesn’t mean to live up to its title; if there’s anybody who’s so rock-solid in his musical convictions he might never
try to reinvent himself, it’s Stapleton. But it’d be tough to consider any album formulaic that features not just one but two Guy Clark covers, paying homage to one of Stapleton’s songwriting heroes. When he stacks those vintage Clark songs back to back, you can forgive the moments earlier when Stapleton comes up with rhymes like “Girl you know you left this hole / Right here in the middle of my soul.” The song that contains that couplet, “Cold,” is the least-inspired piece of writing on the album, which is probably why Stapleton and co-producer Dave Cobb break form and gussy it up with a big, ’70s-style string section. But when the singer goes into his stripped-down, acoustic mode — which is a lot of the time — it’s usually a sign that you’re in for subtly emotive imagery that will sneak up on you, the way it would in, sure, a Guy Clark song.
Clark’s “Worry B Gone” is turned into a terrific rock shuffle in Stapleton’s hands and fits into the fine balance of contentedness and high anxiety that the artist expertly skirts. Following along in that same lyrical regard, Stapleton’s self-penned “When I’m With You” is practically a career summation: Projecting himself into despair a little bit at this late, acclaimed date, Stapleton sings of entering middle age and worrying “the things that I’ve done / I doubt anyone will remember after I’m gone,” but weighing the depression of “searching for something I know that I’m not gonna find” against the saving love of a good woman and finding that the balance sheet just barely comes out okay.
He goes for more overt drama in a song co-written by the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, “Watch You Burn,” in which he imagines the mass shooter at the Route 91 Harvest festival being literally consigned to hell. It’s not hard to understand why a major country star would want to personally hand the psychopath who murdered dozens of the genre’s fans in 2017 directly over to Satan, and if the song ends up being cathartic for survivors, that’s all for the good. But that kind of extreme anger feels, in the context of his generally easier-going music, a little bit off-brand for Stapleton… though not as off-brand as the vengeful full choir that he and Cobb tag onto the end of the song, one of the very few questionable musical choices either has ever made.
Two of the album’s best songs also deal with death, with more unassailable results. Just when you think Stapleton might forgo tearjerkers this time around, he offers “Maggie’s Song,” an ode to a very good girl who has gone to the great doghouse in the sky. (There are a lot of jokes about country singers writing songs about their dead dogs, but when was the last time you heard one? Not recently enough.)
The other is the closing “Nashville, TN,” which is really a song about the death of a dream — the dream of success in the title city. Clearly not wholly autobiographical, this finale is a surprisingly harsh, if not bitter, ballad that equates Music City with a bespoiled lover who needs to be left behind. He’s almost surely writing here from the point of view of one of his friends who’s had to learn the hard way that thoughtful songwriting isn’t held at much of a premium by very many these days. But whether it’s his own current point of view or not, Stapleton certainly sings it like somebody who’s ready to give Nashville a tough kiss-off. As well he could, from a position of power, not defeat. Underlying its attitude is a point that’s hard to dispute: With Stapleton as the cred-conferring, bearded face of the genre’s higher aspirations — and a guy with little need of No. 1s to hold onto a fan base that’ll surely be attending his tours into the mid-century — Nashville needs him more than he needs it.
Mercury Nashville Records
Producers: Dave Cobb, Chris Stapleton. Engineers: Vance Powell, Gena Johnson, Mike Fahey. Musicians: Stapleton, Cobb, Morgane Stapleton, Derek Mixon, J.T. Cure, Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell, Paul Franklin.