The powerhouse singer-songwriter is nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year at tonight's CMA awards and this album makes it clear he'll be nominated next year too.

By Sarah Rodman
November 11, 2020 at 12:44 PM EST
Chris Stapleton
Credit: Becky Fluke

“It don't matter to me, wherever we are is where I want to be."

This is a useful lyric to embrace in the current state of WTF-ness in which we now perpetually reside. But as long as we’re stuck, how fortunate that there is a dynamite and dynamic new album from the mighty-voiced Kentucky native Chris Stapleton to cheer, comfort, and sustain us with songs suited for both solitude and socially distanced socializing.

Chris Stapleton album cover Starting Over

Produced by Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile) and featuring help from friends Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Starting Over is a reminder of why Stapleton has made such a splash over the past few years: that skyscraping rasp and his sharply observed yet plainspoken lyrics. Even after the acclaimed peaks of previous albums, 2015's Traveller and the From a Room twofer in 2017, the singer-songwriter is hitting new heights, nailing the crossroads of country, rock, gospel, and pop across 14 tracks.

Speaking of the late, great Petty, the sunny acoustic title track noted above is a charming little chugger in the vein of "Yer So Bad," paying homage to a kind of optimism many of us can relate to at the moment: one born out of struggle. It features, as most Stapleton songs do, his wife Morgane, who brightens every tune she is on with her hand-in-glove harmony vocals.

That song's opposite number comes in the very next track with the dankly swampy blues underpinnings of the John Fogerty-esque “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice.” Co-written with Al Anderson, the song's narrator has a run through the jungle of warring voices in his head, with Stapleton growling "Mama always set a good example/Daddy always gave me good advice/Jesus tried to steer me in the right direction/But the devil always made me think twice." Following the heat of temptation and sin in that song, the temperature plunges for the heartrending country-soul ballad "Cold," in which Stapleton asks that universal question after a break-up: "How am I supposed to live when I built my life around you?" as strings usher in the wind chill factor

And so it goes as he channels The Band for the ambling, poignant ode to man's best friend "Maggie's Song," makes you believe in true love with the ardent John Fogerty cover "Joy of My Life," and takes a ride through the holler with the stark "Hillbilly Blood." He also pays homage to revered songwriter Guy Clark by covering two of his tunes including the incongruously upbeat but sadly prescient blues rocker "Worry B Gone" with its familiar lament: "Everywhere I look, trouble is all I see/Can't listen to the radio and I hate TV/There's trouble with the air, trouble with the water/People ain't treatin' one another like they oughta." Clark concluded, not illogically, "Give me just one more puff of that worry b gone."

“Watch You Burn,” co-written by Campbell, however, is destined to be the album's most buzzed about track. A righteously vengeful response to the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting at a country music festival, it is a master class in harrowing songcraft wrought from real-life horror.

That Stapleton sustains such quality over the balance of the album reinforces why he is routinely honored by his peers in the Recording Academy (five Grammys) and the Country Music Association (10 CMA awards). Tonight, Stapleton will sing the title song on the CMA awards where he is nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year, an award he has won three times previously. Starting Over makes it clear he will likely be collecting more hardware next year.

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