5 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
It’s a wonder I’m finally getting around to writing this review, as I have a tendency to neglect writing about the very best albums because I just feel like listening to them over and over. I got Chris Stapleton’s debut solo release in May, and it still knocks me out a couple of times a week.
The Eastern Kentucky native and Nashville songwriting pro made his bones as a singer with the SteelDrivers, who created the best new variant of bluegrass music so far this century so far. Fans of that genre, including myself, often use the term “country soul” in an attempt to convey just how powerful is virtuosity and feeling the very best bluegrass practitioners bring to their craft. But the most soulful bluegrass—Monroe & Martin’s “high lonesome sound,” the Stanley Brothers’ rustic harmonies, the Seldom Scene’s vocal showmanship—bear little in common musically with soul. The best bluegrass grooves are in feeling quite dissimilar to those of proper soul music, and only a few bluegrass singers both possess and use the types of vocal techniques we hear from the likes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, or Aretha Franklin. (Don Rigsby is one who can and does; I’d love to hear his take on a Stax song or two).
If someone asked me to define what country soul means in 2015, I’d simply refer them to Stapleton’s singing, which ranges far beyond the “outlaw country” label many have put on him. Waylon, Willie, Cash, and the like are all fairly laconic in delivery, relying so much on personal charisma. Stapleton, one will pardon me for saying, has that sort of swagger, as well as every bit of the sonic and emotional bandwidth of Redding and Pickett—and of Gregg Allman, one of the great white soul singers who put across quite a bit of redneck without sacrificing a bit of soul.
If you doubt me, which you well should, listen to “Tennessee Whiskey.” George Jones made it a hit in 1983, with a velvety vocal and countrypolitan production. Backed by just guitar, bass, and drums, Stapleton doesn’t merely sing this song—he overwhelms it, outdoing Jones himself—and Mariah Carey for that matter—with melismata of a dozen notes or so each time he sings the word “warm,” and an octave climb at the end of the line “’cause there’s nothing like your love to get me high” that Sam Cooke would be proud of.
The strength of his songwriting makes Stapleton is even more special; he wrote or co-wrote twelve of the fourteen songs here, so he’s using his remarkable instrument to sing what’s in his own heart.
Big, brash tracks like “Traveller,” “Parachute,” “Nobody to Blame,” “Might as Well Get Stoned,” “The Devil Named Music,” “Sometimes I Cry,” and “Outlaw State of Mind” sound like what Keith Richards, Ryan Adams and Marty Stuart would come up with if you locked them in a room with instructions to write material for an album they’ll be recording with Kings of Leon, while “Whiskey and You,” “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,” and “More of You” are soft acoustic numbers that smolder with agonizing restraint.
I’m almost embarrassed to write an encomium this hyperbolic, but when someone this talented weaves together so many lines of American music into an album this seamless—this magnificent—I can’t help myself. If you think I can’t possibly be right about Chris Stapleton, just listen to him sing “Fire Away,” the most stunning track on what must be considered among the best handful of records by an American artist this decade.