Country Outlier Chris Stapleton Is Returning To His Roots and ‘Starting Over’

While country isn’t everyone’s brand of whiskey, Chris Stapleton’s music has always connected to a Southern tradition that will burn in your chest no matter what kind of libation typically soothes you. From his early days of fronting bluegrass group the Steeldrivers and southern rock band the Jompson Brothers, Stapleton has taken the road less traveled by his contemporary country music peers. In a heady combination of everything from Southern rock to classic country and Southern soul to R&B, Stapleton’s latest album, “Starting Over,” oozes with honeyed emotion and unwavering honesty as he explores the ups and downs of life and love. Incidentally but vitally relevant to the troubled times in which his listeners find themselves, “Starting Over” offers a welcome, cinematic shot of greatness that concludes, and encapsulates, a year of overpowering tumult.

Like his previous records, Stapleton returned to RCA Studio A to record “Starting Over” with co-producer and guitarist Dave Cobb, bassist J.T. Cure, drummer Derek Mixon and his wife Morgane on vocals and tambourine duty. This time, however, Stapleton brought in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench to contribute to a handful of songs. The record opens with the title track that features his wife Morgane, in an expression of sunny restlessness that quickly establishes the album’s tone of beleaguered optimism: “The hard roads are the ones worth choosing / someday we’ll look back and smile / and know it was worth every mile.” Musically halfway between the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers, its follow-up “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” revisits the familiar terrain of a righteous man coming to terms with his appetites for cigarettes, whiskey and dangerous women. But reaching back into Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis” territory, “Cold” elevates the album to another level as his electric guitar and a packed string section duet underneath Stapleton’s lament about a heartbreaking romance. On “Arkansas,” written with the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, Stapleton revisits when he drove his new car, a birthday gift from his wife, from Oklahoma City back to Nashville. “Gotta get down, gotta get down to Arkansas / Having so much fun that it’s probably a little bit against the law,” Stapleton sings over feel-good rock ‘n’ roll stylings charged by Campbell’s electric guitar. 

Stapleton’s gift of switching gears and his musical lexicon, borrowed generously from 1970s and ‘80s country luminaries, gives his music a precise and yet universal quality. “When I’m With You” evokes a more upbeat version of Mickey Gilley’s “Here Comes The Hurt Again,” but they share the same sentimentality: bring on the pain, because with you it feels like pleasure. The second-to-last track, the low-key “You Should Probably Leave,” resonates with Bonnie Raitt’s cheerful melancholy. “Maggie’s Song” reframes the Band’s “The Weight” as a tribute to his dog and the solace he got from her love and protection. And his arrangement of songs like John Fogerty’s “Joy of My Life” carry an irresistible edge of vintage Laurel Canyon blues. In all of them, his strong, earnest voice fills in details only whispered in the lyrics, while the versatility of melody, subject matter and structure makes him more than a songwriter — rather, a real storyteller.

Of course, if you’re a country music fan, or at least a scholar of the country rock bands of the 1970s, this may all seem familiar. Certainly Stapleton’s road house romper of Guy Clark’s “Worry B Gone” offers a kind of boilerplate soundtrack for venues that encourage playful carousing with a constant, thin layer with sawdust on the floor — well, when they finally reopen. But damn if he doesn’t take all of those well-worn country clichés and breathe so much sincerity in them, and so much emotional heft, that they come to life anew here. With his wife Morgane on background vocals, the self-explanatory “Old Friends” is another Clark tribute. Together they sing it so well that you could put this song on at the end of the night at virtually any gathering, and everyone would be joining in to sing the chorus. And if “Nashville, TN.,” co-written with his wife Morgane, doesn’t end up in a movie underneath a scene where two former lovers wistfully part ways rough around the edges but wiser for wear, Hollywood music supervisors simply are not doing their jobs.

No less rousing is “Watch You Burn,” another track co-written with Mike Campbell. Written after the 2017 mass shooting at Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest festival, it is an indictment of mass shooters (obliquely starting with the Route 91 shooter Stephen Paddock) that insists to perpetrators, “you’re gonna get your turn.” It’s really the only track that ventures sonically from an album that otherwise conjures vivid and relatable feelings almost no matter what your particular disposition may be. But at a moment in which artistic, personal and political divisions seem more sharply defined than ever, “Starting Over” couldn’t be better named. Stapleton’s latest may be steeped in many of the country genre’s most familiar musical modes, but the way he combines those impulses feels fresh and wildly relevant — a soundtrack to the hard work of bridging those difficult gaps, using a combination of love, lament and (of course) whiskey.

Starting Over” releases Nov. 13 on Apple Music.