He may appear to be a thick-bearded Seventies outlaw-country throwback, but make no mistake: Chris Stapleton is a soul singer, with a preternaturally creaky voice that can turn wizened or brawny, full of pained howls and distended vowels. His 2015 solo debut, Traveller, transformed him from an eclectically accomplished Nashville songwriter (for acts from Alison Krauss and Ashley Monroe to Adele; those are just the A's) into an icon of artistic cred in a town starved for one. His gobsmacking Justin Timberlake duet at the 2015 Country Music Awards – which he swept, Adele-like – sealed the deal. The question, given country's cookie-cutter tastes, was what comes next?
Thankfully, the follow-up to Traveller is a taut, nine-song LP geared mainly toward spotlighting those remarkable pipes, with scant pandering to mainstream country radio. The first of two volumes (the second is due later this year), From A Room was recorded in Nashville with throwback-country super-producer Dave Cobb at RCA Studio A, a venerable room where Waylon, Willie, Dolly and others made classics back in the day. Arrangements – for guitar, bass and drums, with touches of steel guitar and harmonica – are spare and lean. Songs smolder rather than blaze, amble instead of bolt, and generally keep the volume reined in. Even "Second One to Know," a fierce rocker with rhythm guitar that attacks like John Henry’s hammer, still leaves space for Stapleton’s vocals to match it, blow for blow.
Even more potent is "Either Way," a ballad set to acoustic guitar that goes from broken whisper to chilling holler, with extravagantly curled phrasing informed, one imagines, by hours spent watching smoke plumes rise
toward the ceiling. It conjures Otis Redding as much as Waylon Jennings. Elsewhere, Stapleton is a convincing bluesman. You could imagine B.B. King singing "Death Row" or Freddie King slashing through "I Was Wrong" with his jagged Texas guitar, which Stapleton impressively echoes.
Traveller lacked a bit for focus – it showed an artist moving toward a new voice. From A Room is strikingly focused, sonically and thematically. Its characters are flawed; there's much bad behavior, with heartbreak to pay. "Them Stems" rues a shortfall of weed, a favorite Stapleton topic – few sing the word "stoned" more convincingly (see "Tennessee Whiskey," "Might as Well Get Stoned," "The Devil Named Music," etc.). Aside from a cover of the Willie Nelson fave "Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning," the songs are Stapleton co-writes, plain-spoken sometimes to a fault. But that voice ensures that even generic bits come off as anything but. Here's looking forward to Volume 2.