For the first volume of Kentucky country giant Chris Stapleton’s series “From A Room,” the lines between traditional country and Southern-steeped soul were fairly established, separating the record into two specific but complementary camps. The newly released second volume isn’t as concerned with borders.
Don’t get him wrong. Both stylistic bases play into the record equally. It’s just that they are integrated more with the results summoning an even bolder, more empowered profile for the singer.
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That plays out brilliantly on the last four songs on “From a Room: Volume 2.”
The album’s home stretch begins with “A Simple Song,” a parable of faith amid a scrapbook of weary but credible working-class snapshots (“It’s the kids and the dogs and you and me”) sung with wife Morgane Stapleton against whispery acoustic accompaniment. That tumbles right into “Midnight Train to Memphis,” a hook-heavy electric avalanche that recalls shows that Stapleton hammered out in Lexington clubs with the Jompson Brothers in years past. No sooner does this jolting ghost-train saga finish its rounds than “Volume 2” retreats again with “Drunkard’s Prayer,” a slow, harrowing ballad in which the soul-seared extremes of Stapleton’s singing sound every bit as commanding as they do in the power-chord rampage that preceded it. The tune is sonically starker, but thematically comparable to “Death Row,” the unrepentant eulogy that ended “From A Room: Volume 1.”
“Volume 2” closes on an altogether brighter note with “Friendship,” one of two cover tunes that bookend the album. The song was featured on the sublime 2015 posthumous record “Don’t Lose This” by gospel-soul stalwart Pops Staples. Stapleton’s version can’t exactly be called country in any commercial sense (but, really, none of “Volume 2” can). Instead, it possesses a rural, rustic R&B charm that brings the song closer to the vanguard Americana music of The Band.
Best of all, this album-closing four-song bullet train constitutes only half of this splendid recording.
There is also “Scarecrow in the Garden,” an account of a Northern Ireland immigrant’s new life as a West Virginia farmer, with a melody appealing enough to entice country radio but a story line far weightier than today’s airwaves are likely to allow. Radio will more likely flock to the album-opening reading of Kevin Welch’s love-and-life parable “Millionaire.”
Stapleton’s prime accomplice in this rootsy sideshow is again Americana juggernaut Dave Cobb, who produced both albums in the classic Nashville studio that is now his working home: RCA Studio A.
Stapleton’s vivid, unvarnished musical portraits are already striking in ways that distinguish him from pretty much any of his country contemporaries. What Cobb provides is the framework, a sound as sparse or as heavy as the material calls for. Either way, he adds clarity to one of the most original and unspoiled country voices of our day.