When Chris Stapleton released Traveller in May 2015, he was still something of a cult favorite, championed in bluegrass circles for his work with the SteelDrivers and beloved on Music Row for his behind-the-scenes songwriting. He was successful – well-liked, too – but he wasn’t a star.
That all changed with an undeniable performance during the 2015 CMA Awards, in which Stapleton swapped songs with Justin Timberlake, rattled the cheap seats at the Bridgestone Arena with his super-sized voice and, in less than 10 minutes, transformed himself from an underground hero into a mainstream chart-topper. Traveller climbed to Number One and remained there into the following year, eventually becoming the top-selling country album of 2016.
All of this exposition makes From A Room: Volume 1 the most anticipated country album of the year. Set for release on May 5th, it’s Stapleton’s first new music since Traveller (although every song on the project was written pre-Traveller) with a cross-country tour to match and a companion album due out later this year. Heavily focused on blues, roots-rock and unadorned country, From A Room finds fresh life in familiar sounds, with Stapleton delivering every note in a voice that’s as burly as it is believable.
“Broken Halos” (Chris Stapleton, Mike Henderson)
Equal parts folk-rock anthem and Sunday-morning spiritual, “Broken Halos” – one of four songs on the album written with his former SteelDriver mate Mike Henderson – begins with five seconds of Stapleton in solo mode, howling over an acoustic guitar. When the band joins him halfway through the first verse, it’s an understated entrance, stripped free of radio-friendly gloss. Like Traveller‘s title track, “Broken Halos” is a straightforward, uncluttered opener, designed to welcome – not overwhelm – the listener.
“Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” (Gary P. Nunn, Donna Sioux Farrar)
A Number Two hit for Willie Nelson in 1982, this Always on My Mind classic is the lone cover on Room‘s nine-song track list. Stapleton remakes it into a guitar ballad, punctuated by harmonies from his wife Morgane that echo in the background like the ghost of the woman who left. Tying the package together is occasional bandmate Mickey Raphael, who played harmonica on the early-Eighties original and reprises the role here.
“Second One to Know” (Chris Stapleton, Mike Henderson)
Guitar geeks, rejoice. Stapleton explodes on this roadhouse rocker, doubling down on six-string swagger and percussive bounce. Producer Dave Cobb, who joined Stapleton’s band during the song’s premiere at the 2017 ACM Awards, coats everything in reverb, as though the guitars are echoing off the studio walls.
“Up to No Good Livin'” (Chris Stapleton, Casey Beathard)
“People called me the Picasso of painting the town,” Stapleton quips in this smart-ass drinking song, which mixes Wild West-inspired pedal-steel licks (compliments of frequent collaborator Robby Turner) with a singalong chorus. Channeling booze-loving crooners like George Jones, Stapleton rattles his way through wisecracking lyrics with equal parts class and half-lit attitude.
“Either Way” (Chris Stapleton, Tim James and Kendall Marvel)
“My wife always liked this song,” Stapleton told a crowd of radio DJs and label execs in early 2016, during a midday performance at Nashville’s yearly Country Radio Seminar. He then played a solo version of “Either Way,” a decade-old tune that was first recorded by Lee Ann Womack. The studio version doesn’t differ much from that first live performance, with Stapleton screaming heartbroken lyrics over acoustic guitar arpeggios. Simple and stunning.
“I Was Wrong” (Chris Stapleton and Craig Wiseman)
The album’s centerpiece, “I Was Wrong” simmers its way from a bare-boned verse to an elastic, explosive chorus. Die-hard fans may recognize the tune from Stapleton’s days with the Jompson Brothers, and the band’s original arrangement – rooted in electric blues and Southern soul – remains more or less intact. Stapleton nails the guitar solo, too, but it’s his vocal delivery that packs the biggest punch.
“Without Your Love” (Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson)
Heartbroken, guilty and apologetic, “Without Your Love” finds its singer down in the dumps, unable to shake the memory of his ex. The storyline is familiar enough, but Stapleton sells the script like it’s Hollywood’s next big-budget blockbuster, maintaining his calm during the verses before unleashing a waterworks-worthy wail with each chorus. Behind him, J.T. Cure plucks a descending chromatic riff on the bass, tracing Stapleton’s mood into the gloomy depths.
“Them Stems” (Chris Stapleton, Jimmy Stewart and Shawn Camp)
Stapleton sings the baked blues, lamenting not only the departure of his fed-up former flame, but also the absence of his weed dealer. Looking for relief, he fires up the dregs of his stash – stems, seeds and all – while his band kicks up a boogie-woogie groove. Mickey Raphael gets a piece of the action, too, honking his harmonica between guitar riffs worthy of Keith Richards. The stoned meet the Stones.
“Death Row” (Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson)
Bookending the album with another Mike Henderson co-write, Stapleton finishes From A Room on a haunting note. “Death Row” captures a prisoner’s final thoughts, setting them to a unique arrangement – cyclical guitar patterns, sparse percussion and repetitive bass – that hints at the monotony of a life spent behind bars.