Chris Stapleton is saving modern country music

On ‘From a Room: Volume 2’ and the state of the genre

ae-ChrisStapleton-CourtesyUMG

Chris Stapleton's "From a Room: Volume 2" is everything a country album should be — heartfelt, sweetly simple and beautiful.

Courtesy Universal Music Group

Chris Stapleton’s rise to fame can certainly be classified as meteoric. For a sizable portion of his career, Stapleton was just a songwriter for the likes of Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker and even Adele. But, in 2015, he released his first album under his own name. His first record “Traveller” won Best Country Album at the Grammy’s and was even nominated for Album of the Year, and just like that — Stapleton was the new face of country music.

His arrival couldn’t have come at a better time, as the figureheads of modern country music were beginning to look and sound more like Miley Cyrus than Billy Ray Cyrus. That may be a bit harsh, but the desire for chart-topping hits and stadium-filling hooks was leading country music in a “poppier” direction — see Taylor Swift’s career path. Gone were the acoustic guitars, replaced with synths and overproduction — remember this gem from the Zac Brown Band? The bar for a popular country song was lowered to a vocalist with a southern accent singing over the karaoke version of a Train song. Artists like Florida-Georgia Line and Sam Hunt were all the rage, and it’s not that the songs were bad, necessarily — though most of them were — it’s just that they weren’t country songs. These musicians and many others were weak songwriters and wannabe pop stars masquerading as country artists.

Along with the quality of the music went the sincerity and grit commonly found in classic country music. Comedian Bo Burnham put it best in his satirical take, “Country Music (Pandering),” singing, “I walk and talk like a field hand / But the boots I’m wearing cost three grand / I write songs about riding tractors / From the comfort of a private jet.” The classic feel of country music had followed the classic sound right out the door.

Enter Chris Stapleton.

Stapleton recently released his third record, “From a Room: Volume 2,” and it serves as another reminder as to why he is — and very well should be — the new face of country music. Stapleton’s formula is nothing revolutionary, but perhaps his overnight rise can be explained by the fact that people heard him and realized what they were missing as well as how far country music had strayed.

None of this is to say that Stapleton is the only artist who has written a good country song in the last five years, because that’s not true. What is important, though, is how real country music is being recognized and appreciated again, and Stapleton has been the face of this resurgence. He is out setting the example for how country music should sound, and people are listening.

“From a Room: Volume 2” is a solid effort from top to bottom, with each song a little different than the last, but all with the same warmth and feel that Stapleton has championed since “Traveller.” The album may seem different from other modern country releases, but Stapleton is not trying to be different. Rather, he is making country music the way he believes it should sound. Country music is not meant for the sort of progressiveness that some modern artists are striving for. The genre is intrinsically a bit anachronistic, with the cowboy hats and upright basses and simple composition. Stapleton maintains all of these things and more on “From a Room: Volume 2,” and he shows that sometimes sticking with the classic formula yields the best results.

The formula can be heard and picked apart on every track. Whether it is a slow song or an upbeat one, you can hear the guitar, the bass and the drums. They all come together as the ideal backing for Stapleton’s distinct and powerful voice. Even his lyrics recall the country traditions of old — just hearing him sing, “there’s a Bible in my left hand / And a pistol in my right” at the end of “Scarecrow In The Garden” makes your lip quiver a bit. All of this sound is tastefully understated, though, and no song on the album is made to fill a stadium arena. Rather, when you close your eyes and listen, each song seems to take you to a dimly lit stage in the back of some forgotten country bar.

The album begins with one of its strongest tracks, “Millionaire,” where Stapleton reaches out with the bare acoustic intro, and then pulls you in with his wife Morgane’s perfectly subtle harmonies. The next track, “Hard Livin’,” is a foot-stomping blues song that sounds like it would’ve brought the crowd at Folsom Prison to its feet. The jump in styles between these tracks shows that Stapleton knows the spectrum of country music roots, and can play that spectrum like a fiddle­ — pun intended.

“A Simple Song” is the most restrained song on the album, but somehow the most powerful. This song epitomizes the genuine feel and minimalism that country music has been missing recently. The lyrics aren’t complex, but you can’t help but listen closely, as if Stapleton were giving you life lessons as a bedtime story. He’s reminding us that happiness is not hard to find — “It’s the kids and the dogs and you and me ... It’s a sound of a slow, simple song.”

“From a Room: Volume 2” is Stapleton’s third triumph in creating a genuine and impressive country record, and hopefully he doesn’t stop soon.

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