With his quadruple-platinum 2015 album, Traveller, troubadour Chris Stapleton established himself as a Nashville superstar who could interpret country songs with the touch of a great R&B singer. Stapleton’s gravelly voice, outlaw look, and earnest storytelling made him a bearded paragon of roots tradition. But that role didn’t really fit an artist who has written tunes for pop-aware country guys like Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett and collaborated with everyone from Pink to Justin Timberlake.
But unlike his authenticity-branded contemporary Sturgill Simpson, Stapleton has never appeared tortured by the idea that he represents some sort of bygone country-rock ideal, and his fourth album, Starting Over, feels similarly at home trying whatever comes naturally. Stapleton wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 14 songs on Starting Over; it’s a cozy-campfire roots record. He digs deep into familiar territory, spinning a fiery tale of Southern-rock deliverance on “Arkansas” and a feel-good story about rescue dogs set to Pops Staples-style gospel-pop progressions on “Maggie’s Song,” while also leaning into his triumvirate of favorite topics: weed, the devil, and domestic joy. That final one is best exemplified by the title track, a rich portrayal of partnership aided by wife Morgane Stapleton, whose harmony singing serves as a moving counterpoint to Chris’ Kentucky baritone.
Stapleton seems equally in his element on songs that echo the pop songwriting he’s done for artists like Kelly Clarkson and Timberlake. He explores new sonic territory on the stately piano tune “Cold,” and slow-burning ballads like “You Should Probably Leave” show that he may be at his best when working with grooving, midtempo R&B.
Like Frank Sinatra, Stapleton has an uncanny ability to make other songwriters’ material feel like his own. The covers here are high points, from the two reverent Guy Clark tunes to a surprisingly vital take on a 20-plus-year-old anonymous John Fogerty song, “Joy of My Life.”
Since so much of this album feels so comfortable, it’s noteworthy that the most interesting moment comes when Stapleton tries something new. The stormy vengeance rocker “Watch You Burn” is country’s most direct response to the 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival (it’s also surely the only song to twang-rhyme “bombs” with “synagogue”). He ends Starting Over with another moment of tension, the farewell ballad “Nashville, TN”: “Now you won’t miss me when I’m gone,” he sings to the city itself. “You’re custom-made for moving on.” Should Stapleton ever really break out of his comfort zone, Music City may end up following him to his next destination anyway.