If you’re a casual music fan, or too young to have been baptized by old family member’s record collections or the stoner in your college dorm with great musical taste, Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over is merely a masterwork of country soul stretched over a frame of lean blues/rock. Pour a tumbler of whiskey, twist up some good bud and sink into the grooves for a trip through feral vocal witness… and that’s plenty.
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But for those who know the Allman Brothers, the Band, the Staples Singers, Nirvana, Steve Earle or even yacht rocking Michael McDonald, the influences rise up like fellow travelers on a path of American music. McDonald emerges from a supple ‘80s pop-R&B gem “You Should Probably Leave,” about the reality of knowing better and the heartache it holds. A porous vocal that wrings out the torture of wanting, trying to resist transforms the confection into a rare soul-baring confession that’s so much deeper
But the hardercore influences are the staunchest stuff. “Joy Of My Life,” a minimalist ballad celebrating wife – and musical co-creator – Morgane, evokes the Allmans’ “Melissa,” while “Maggie’s Song” gives his best dog an elegiac celebration of life that evokes the Staples’ take on the Band’s “The Weight,” and “Whiskey Sunrise” suggests Cobain & Co’s chilling rendition of the blues classic “In The Pines.” As for Earle, “Hillbilly Blood” is a straight draw down from “Copperhead Road,” tracing the same outlier ingenuity and getting it done brio with a truer picture of Appalachian dignity, toughness and smarts than a stack of Netflix/JD Vance’s Hillbilly Blood; defiant, taut, real, it delivers the same fierce Don’t Tread On Me truth as Hank Williams, Jr’s “Country Boy Can Survive.”
But this isn’t just a survey course of ghosts and influences. He homages the Texas songwriting legend Guy Clark in a 1, 2 drop that reinvents the icon in delicious ways. Breathing a jaunty grindhouse shuffle into the chill dope-smoking “Worry B Gone,” a bawdy celebration emerges that’s as much swagger as mellow gold. He follows with a tender take on “Old Friends,” more vulnerable and pensive than the original, a consideration of mortality, doubt, loss and what gets you through.
As delicious as the song-by-song takedown is, Starting Over’s almost more intriguing in its larger truths. Stapleton, with that massive tread voice, has been off-road in the realm of modern roots music since exploding from the tv during a fiery performance of “Tennessee Whiskey” with Justin Timberlake on “The CMA Awards.” Rather than take that velocity and play it safe, chasing hits and “opportunities,” he’s been fiercely committed to excellence, pressing into the music’s roots and finding ways to challenge his gifts and his muse.
Like Waylon and Honky Tonk Heroes, Stapleton’s carved a sound, place and ethos that’s wholly his own. He’s also been willing to not preach, but press into our conscience to make us really look at who we are, what we value, how we square the deals we make. Recorded long before COVID-19 and the real implosion of the election cycle, Starting Over is a powder keg of reckoning and reconciliation.
“Watch You Burn” starts small, draws the llstener in, then drops down into a guitar and gun-shot drum part that is as rock & roll as “Sympathy for the Devil.” Tackling the Vegas shooting at the Harvest Rte 91 Festival, the song sweeps far broader. Proclaiming in his full man wail, “…the evil ones, you know who you are, I beg of you don’t ya go too far/ Just know this, let it give you pause , before you mail your bombs or pull the trigger in a synagogue…” as the All Voices choir sweeps up in full behind him, “You’re gonna get your turn…”
That turbulence and foment is a brutal delight. Stapleton enlists electric guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard/organist Benmont Tench, founding members ofTom Petty & the Heartbreakers, for added whomp, steam and burn. The rowdy delight of “Arkansas,” with its cascades of slide guitar, offers a distillation of Southern rock pulled through Chuck Berry’s raw rock & roll delight that elevates road-tripping and wild-living to a much saltier good time national anthem. The lean blues of “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” offers that guitar as a second voice, speaking just as much as the actual singer, on an homage to the carnal and living in the now.
But much like Willie Nelson’s career-defining Phases & Stages, Starting Over is a recessioniist work that embraces the music and rejects the hubris and hegemony of a business that thwarts creativity. Sounding like Waylon and Jessi Colter on “Storms Never Last,” the album kicks off with “Starting Over,” an easy going ballad that unravels the stakes, the gains and the pleasures of committing to integrity over chasing what you’re told you want…
And it all ends 14 songs later with the Neil Young at his most bucolic “Nashville, TN.” Steel-leaking and staining the track, it’s a lullabye of good-bye to a place that shaped him, that showed him what was possible, but also offered a truth he couldn’t live with. A sad reckoning, and if times were different, Nashville might’ve been the name given to a woman being left behind in a gentle break-up song; but only a fool would think it’s about anything but a business grown even more crass and craven
“You won’t miss me when I’m gone,” he sings regretfully, but resigned, “you’re custom made for moving on/ From time to time, I’ll pass you by, a face that I don’t recognize… You can’t have what’s left of me/ as far as I can tell, it’s time I wish you well/ Good-bye, Nashville, Tennessee.”
Like Nelson, like Kevin Welch, whose “Millionaire” earned him Grammy love, Stapleton is a true original and he’s smart enough to know when to leave. He created his own template, connected in ways the cookie cutter boys will never. At a time when so much is upside down and uncertain, the only thing he knows to count on is your own true vision. Starting is an album – yes, an album, not a track — for anyone cleaving to the notion of something more, something true, something built to last.