It’s hard to remember now, since he’s by a considerable margin the most successful and popular country singer on this rock, that Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, while being one of the best albums of 2015, did not aspire to some commercial greatness. It boasted no songs you could reasonably expect to be played on the “let’s lay in the back of my pickup” era of country radio. He wrote most of the songs himself, or with a partner. Its best songs were about being too old or too worn out to do things like you used to. Traveller did not aim to cause a spiritual crisis for the country rock establishment--Stapleton’s biggest hit the year it came out wasn’t even his own; it was a song he wrote for friend-of-Florida-Georgia-Line Thomas Rhett--but after Stapleton barnstormed the CMAs with Justin Timberlake, he did what Sturgill, Isbell, and Jamey Johnson could not do before him: he forced the bros to take stock and change up. You went from this, to this, in the span of 18 months.
Traveller was the first country album to hit number one on the Billboard 200 in something like five years, and it’s sold more than two million physical copies since (incredibly, more than a fourth of them this year; two years after it came out, it was number one on the country charts for five weeks this year). Which is to say Stapleton’s follow-up had what Traveller did not: expectations. How would Stapleton follow up the biggest feel-good story in country music this decade?
The answer, of course, was with the quickly announced and released From A Room: Volume 1, an album that deflected expectations by delivering the straight dope: no gimmicks, no This Album Is Important posturing. Just a nine-song album that brings the best of Stapleton: soaring, resplendent harmonies with wife Morgane, incredibly written songs like “Broken Halos,” songs about smoking weed (“Them Stems”), and covers so good they make you forget they’re covers (“Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning”). Volume 1 was an even less likely commercial juggernaut than Traveller. It’s since sold more than a half million copies.
As the title suggests, From A Room: Volume 1 was meant as a series, and the second one, Volume 2, is what concerns us here. Nine songs like Volume 1, it’s got covers, it’s got heartfelt ballads, and at least one song about getting so honked up you get sent to jail in Memphis. It is every bit as good as Volume 1, and maybe even slightly better. It will, and deserves to, sell a half million copies.
It’s not just a clever title construct: Volume 2 is tonally of a piece with Volume 1. But where Volume 1 relied on songs that brought crackling red hot energy, Volume 2 is slightly more subdued. The album’s centerpieces are four ballads. “Simple Song” finds Stapleton finding solace in small things like his family and his dogs, and a tender cover of Kevin Welch’s “Millionaire” hits the same themes. “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight,” meanwhile, is a rumination on that old country theme: getting drunk alone, together. But the finest softer moment of Stapleton’s three albums is “Drunkard’s Prayer,” a song about a man struggling with his maker over a bottle of whiskey and a glass of ice. “Maybe he’ll forgive the things you ain’t forgot, when I get drunk and talk to god,” Stapleton sings over just an acoustic guitar. It’s a song that will wreck you on a Sunday drive, or if you hear it when you’ve had too many.
One of the secret elements of the Stapleton story is that he’s quietly one of the most exciting guitarists in any genre, a guy who can turn chunky Waylon riffs into monoliths that will crack your car’s windows. “Midnight Train to Memphis” is like Jimi Hendrix playing Nashville blues, while the playing on “Scarecrow in the Garden” is as intricate as an early Byrds single. His playing can range from the mellow solos of “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight” to the churning Memphis soul of a splendid cover Pops Staples’ “Friendship” to the crunchy bar grooves of “Tryin’ To Untangle My Mind.”
Volume 2 caps off a year where Stapleton was both overtly and covertly dominating country music. His two album feat this year was both unassuming and a major event: he might not be the biggest star on the coasts, but he’s to the point where he’s the biggest star out here in Middle America. It’s rare that a genre’s most popular practitioner is also its best, yet here we are, with Stapleton in 2017. Stapleton’s quiet dominance this year was like his countenance: committed, resolute, and superlative.