ALBUM REVIEW: Chris Stapleton hones songwriting chops on ‘Starting Over’

Chris Stapleton, Chris Stapleton Starting Over

Country artist Chris Stapleton has been praised for his work as a songwriter. The recipient of five Grammy awards, Stapleton has realized success binding the multiple strands of Americana together in a honky-tonk mishmash. Though his songs marinate in country twang, Stapleton’s genre is the art of songcraft. On Starting Over, the crabby Stapleton explores a range of styles adjacent to country—resulting in a sturdy roots-rock record.

Starting Over
Chris Stapleton
Mercury Records, Nov. 13

Popular country music—more than most any genre—runs the risk of getting mired in drippy sentimentalism. Seemingly any facile metaphor can trigger a story about special moments in rural America. The same tropes about empty cans and beloved trucks repeat themselves to the point of dullness. The emphasis on happy memories and coming-of-age tales can wear on a psyche that finds such themes tired and clichéd.

Chris Stapleton uses this method sparingly on Starting Over, making the record accessible to genre-lovers. Notably, he embraces the trope of singing about drinking too much whiskey on “Worry B Gone” and the rambunctious “Arkansas.” Old sayings and aphorisms pop up as well. “I can be your lucky penny/ You can be my four-leaf clover, starting over,” he sings on the title track, drawing from the familiar rather than the esoteric to make his point.

Such humdrum inspirations would become quickly exhausted in the hands of a lesser songsmith. Thankfully, Stapleton is working with more than the standard country toolbox. His vocal inflection is not so twangy as to grate with affectation. His lyrics, while straightforward, develop organically alongside varied instrumentation. He generally manages to walk a middle course among country music’s meandering highways. Though he veers toward the sentimental on about half the songs—it’s to Stapleton’s credit that he also incorporates bleary-eyed roadhouse raunch and anthemic Southern rock.

The saloon-room boogie of “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” showcases his blues influences as it delivers a healthy dose of sand. Blues licks pop like hot grease—and Stapleton makes no apologies—exercising convincingly grimy vocals. It’s the most Texas-sounding song in the set, dropping little hints of Billy Gibbons and Stevie Ray Vaughan anchored by a big backbeat. Stapleton sings of his tendency to go wrong despite good guidance, referencing the outlaw tradition.

Stapleton has a dark streak that comes through most appealingly on his down-tuned bluesy dirges. “Whisky Sunrise” quotes the old standard “House Of The Rising Sun” as he shreds his throat. He wails about the pain of turning whisky into teardrops in another all-night session. “Hillbilly Blood” nicely transitions between two moods. Beginning as a mellow meditation, it builds in intensity for a rock chorus. “Hillbilly blood, river runs red/ Finger on the trigger, and a pound of lead,” he sings, betraying a permanently salty disposition.

The other real saving grace for Stapleton is his natural feel for the electric guitar. He lays down some convincing blues leads on “Devil Made Me Think Twice.” The mini-epic “Watch You Burn” displays a fiery, heavily reverb-laden guitar riff that combines Texas grit with California surf. Some flash licks and choice guitar phrasing underpin a worthy Van Morrison turn on “You Should Probably Leave.”

On Starting Over, Stapleton doesn’t merely stick with the obvious. Incorporating a trio of covers, he branches into a handful of styles—including Southern rock, country folk, and boogie-woogie. Throughout, he melds relatable, “just folks” lyrics to nuanced arrangements and a mix of moods. “I’m 40 years old,” he sings mundanely on the sodden waltz “When I’m With You.” “And it looks like the end of the rainbow ain’t no pot of gold,” he continues, finishing the couplet with graceful plainness. In this vein, Chris Stapleton combines a natural songwriting talent with a knack for genre studies. The resulting album is a set of sincere and well thought-out songs.

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