Album Review — Chris Stapleton’s ‘Starting Over’

Chris Stapleton isn’t just a country artist. He’s a rock, soul, pop and blues artist too. It’s why he crosses over betweens several groups of fans and he gives off what feels like universal appeal. Incorporating multiple influences of genres into his music is what he’s always done and always will do. Expecting anything less is quite frankly naive. Of course he’s marketed as a country artist because it’s what sells easiest to listeners and for people who like to have boxes for their music (plus artists seemingly aren’t allowed to be marketed beyond one genre, but that’s another can of worms). But as for me, I enjoy variety and I hate boxes. Starting Over is an album that refuses to stay in one box and damn do I enjoy this record because of this.

The jangling “Starting Over” is an appropriate opener. It feels like the beginning of a trip or journey thanks to it’s uplifting nature conveyed by it’s acoustic-driven sound and of course the lyrical content centering around hitting the reset button. It’s Stapleton at his core and that’s a songwriter with a guitar. He sets the base with this song and spends the rest of the album building on this with the different layers of his style. “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” is his twangy, “outlaw” country side. He shows off his bluesy, rawer side vocally that he demonstrated a lot in From A Room: Volume 1. And I love this because it’s so powerful and gives the song an enjoyable sing-a-long quality. Yes, the lyrics aren’t evolutionary. But they don’t need to be when Stapleton’s voice is the centerpiece of the song. The whole point is giving this raw and bluesy passion a platform.

“Cold” instantly became one of my favorites from Stapleton. Just like “Either Way,” this song blows me away with it’s powerful vocals. The piano and strings-driven, orchestral sound gives it an entertaining dramatic feel. It feels like something out of the climax of a movie. There’s a sense of urgency and gravitas behind each sound in this song, constantly building until the crescendo in the bridge as the guitars crash and Stapleton explodes vocally. Again, Stapleton doesn’t need lyrics to tell a compelling story with this song. He just uses his effortless vocals and grand instrumentation to create great emotion in the listener.

Stapleton though switches more into storytelling mode with “When I’m With You.” It’s set very much in the vein of “Tennessee Whiskey”: it’s slowed down, bluesy and reiterating an appreciation for your significant other. It goes beyond this slightly though, as it’s within the context of Stapleton turning 40 and being introspective of not only his relationship with his wife Morganne, but where he’s at in his life and reflecting on lessons learned so far. It’s not just an “I love my wife” song in the vein of the boyfriend country songs on radio. Stapleton also admits that life hasn’t been the “pot of gold” he imagined it to be either and isn’t exactly where he expected to be. It’s grounded in reality and doesn’t have a singular focus, which makes it more resonating.

“Arkansas” is a fun rocker. It’s a song where you crank the volume all the way up and sing along with like his cuts with The Jompson Brothers. Because an album with just introspective ballads would be boring and as I said at the start, Stapleton is many genres, including rock. Even though I must admit that a song about having fun in Arkansas is a bit funny because it’s not exactly Las Vegas in the minds of many. Stapleton then covers John Fogerty’s “Joy of My Life” and it’s another enjoyable love ballad from him. He knocks these out in his sleep. But it’s one of a couple songs that aren’t essential for this album. He already has a couple other ballads that are better on not just this album, but in other albums too.

One of the more seemingly underrated tracks on this album is “Hillbilly Blood.” Stapleton says this song takes inspiration from Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” and you can definitely hear the influence in both the production and lyrics. It’s a thrilling story of an outlaw on the run for illegal activity (likely weed or moonshine, but it’s never specified). While I can understand wanting some more details, I believe the vagueness of the story gives it an appealing shroud of mystery similar to Eric Church’s “Knives of New Orleans.” Stapleton gets sentimental on “Maggie’s Song,” an ode to his dog that passed away that tells a synopsis of her life and the impact she had on him and his family. Normally this type of song elicits an eye-roll from me. It’s critic bait. It’s usually saccharine and it brings out my crankiness towards the unhealthy obsessiveness of today’s pet ownership culture. But damn does it win me over in a big way, in large part thanks to the intricate descriptiveness and reflection in the lyrics. It gets personal and that makes it so much more connectable than other songs in this vein. It has heart.

Just like “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice,” Stapleton’s voice is the centerpiece on “Whiskey Sunrise.” The theme and lyrics are nothing special, but that’s not the point. This is an exercise in showcasing his incredible vocals. For some this has become a boring and predictable aspect of Stapleton, but I’m still impressed by his voice and this song shows this in spades. Also the build up of the drums in the background of the hook gives the song a satisfying swell and excitement. “Worry B Gone” and “Old Friends” are two unlikely covers of the legendary Guy Clark. On the former, it’s easy to dismiss it on the surface level as Stapleton’s standard weed song on an album. But reading into it more, you could interpret it as a subtle protest of the times and not fitting the mold of what others expect of him, which makes it a more interesting inclusion on the album. Maybe I’m just finding what I want to find. It’s all subjective of course. The latter is unfortunately my least favorite track of the album. It’s not bad, it just doesn’t fit Stapleton in my mind and the original from Clark feels like it should be left as is. This feels like the same situation of when Stapleton covered “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning.”

“Watch You Burn” was probably my most anticipated song on the album. It was sampled in the album teaser and it caught my eye because it sounds unlike any other Stapleton song to this point. It’s a viscerally angry response to the shooter at the 2017 country festival in Vegas. It rightfully rips the shooter a new ass and condemns him to hell for his monstrous actions. And quite frankly there shouldn’t be any other response to such an event. Shooters don’t deserve to be humanized in any way and their name should be forgotten. And you can’t solve the problems of the world in a song either (and certainly not through anger). But you can give voice to an emotion. This song gives voice to the angered and those wronged from the shooting.

I instantly enjoy “You Should Probably Leave” due it’s smooth and breezy R&B sound. The lyrics are arguably more enjoyable, as a potential romance is constantly teased and built up before it finally happens. There’s an internal resistance that doesn’t match the actions that builds up the sexual tension for both sides in the song, creating an intriguing doubt. This results in a clever twist at the end, where doubt is only doubled after indulging in passion. And the song rightfully doesn’t come to a conclusion because it’s the tantalizing doubt and flirting with danger that’s the whole point of it all. It’s enjoyable to be left wanting more, a la a cliffhanger in a movie.

The album concludes with “Nashville, TN” and it’s a breakup song between Stapleton and the city. He says he wrote the song in the wake of his rise to superstardom, something he’s admittedly not comfortable with. I think this is his quiet rebuke to those who expected him to rise to the occasion and be this superstar they envisioned him to be. So more than anything this feels like him divorcing himself from the expectations of the machine: producing radio hits, promoting himself and fitting the mold of a typical country star. Because as this album proves throughout, playing by the rules and meeting expectations is not something Stapleton is really interested in. Nor was it how he came to be the star he is today. Moving out of Nashville is symbolic of all of this.

Starting Over is what it says it is: it’s Chris Stapleton hitting a reset button on expectations. It’s him indulging in all of his influences and putting them all on display. It’s a reminder of who he is as an artist, even though this may not sound much different than what he’s released before. But again the expectations have to be kept in check because an artist’s image is more important than many listeners and reviewers realize. I think Stapleton realized he needed to reiterate who he sees himself as with this album. It’s him quietly and not so quietly voicing his displeasure at the world around him too. But really Stapleton does what he’s always focused on doing with his music on this album: making good music with no expectations. And that’s the best kind of music.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – Darrell Scott’s ‘Couchville Sessions’

Darrell Scott Couchville Sessions

One of the reasons why I love Americana and great country music is the brilliant songwriting. The stories that the songs tell and the amount of emotions it brings out of the viewer is something you can’t put a price on. Derek pretty much hit the nail on the head in his piece last week on why songwriting is so important to him. Excellent songwriters don’t just spring out of thin air, so when I come across one I cherish their music. Darrell Scott is one of those few excellent songwriters. Scott of course is most well-known for penning such hits as “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” (a personal favorite of mine, most famously recorded by Brad Paisley), Travis Tritt’s “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive” and the Dixie Chicks’ hit “Long Time Gone.”

Scott is not one of flash and fame, but one of the most well-respected and revered songwriters in country and Americana circles. It’s been four years since he’s released an album of new material and he now returns with new music that really isn’t new in age. In fact they’re over a decade old. According to Garden and Gun, in the early 2000s Scott “recorded 45 songs in the living room of his house on Nashville’s Couchville Pike.” After sitting for around 15 years in a vault, Scott picked 14 of the songs (nine written by him and five covers of who he considers his heroes) out for his brand new album Couchville Sessions. And thank goodness Scott never forgot about them because this album is a master class in songwriting.

The opening track, “Down to the River”, really sets the tone for the whole album. The folksy, down to earth tone combined with sharp lyrics like when Scott sings, “and we won’t give a damn if it’s rock, folk, country or blues” really makes it easy to get into. From the first listen it drew me in and you’ll undoubtedly be singing along with it. At the end of the song, Scott’s friend and fellow singer-songwriter Guy Clark tells an anecdote about finding a crow’s nest made out of barbed wire. It’s really surreal to hear the recently passed icon tell the story and makes for one of the coolest moments I’ve heard in a song this year. The soulful “Waiting for the Clothes to Get Clean” really shows off Scott’s smooth as silk voice. He just makes it sound so flawless. The song itself is about a troubled relationship, in the most part because the guy in it is an asshole. The bluesy guitars cut through the lyrics like a hot knife through butter.

“It’s Time to Go Away” is about a relationship coming to an end and the man realizing he’s leaving for all of the right reasons. It’s really hard to describe how great of a songwriter Darrell Scott is and this song is a perfect example. The story is simple, yet told so vividly you can picture the song in your head instantly. It’s just something you have to hear. Scott covers Johnny Cash’s “Big River” next. The song is about a man following his woman down the Mississippi River, as she seems to care more about living life down throughout the river than be with him. Scott definitely does the Man in Black justice with the cover. One of my favorites on Couchville Sessions is “Love Is The Reason.” The soaring instrumentation and Scott’s voice just mesh so well on this song about love.

Another cover on the album is Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man.” Darrell Scott’s version is slower and more melancholy. Or to put it more bluntly, it’s pretty damn sad. It’s the kind of song you play after a brutal breakup and play while you sit in the dark and drink. That’s probably the way Hank would have preferred it too. Only the truly patient will want to sit and listen all the way through this nearly seven-minute song, but it is worth it. “It’s About Time” is perhaps the darkest song on the album. Scott deals with his own mortality and the legacy you leave behind when you die. As he explains on the song, he’s lived it all and when death comes he will be ready. But it shouldn’t be sad because from a fallen tree new sprouts will emerge. It’s the circle of life. The Celtic folk sound really jives well with the lyrics on this song. It’s yet another example of why Darrell Scott is so respected by fellow writers and artists.

This is followed by Scott’s cover of Peter Rowan’s “Moonlight Midnight.” Rowan himself joins Scott on the song and they sound great together. It’s the most rock-influenced track on the album and features some stellar electric guitar play. Scott pokes fun at radio DJs on “Morning Man.” This is evident by the lines about getting a fat man to laugh at his jokes and signing autographs at the mall. It shows Scott has a humorous side too and helps break up some of the more serious songs on the album. I know I got some good laughs. The icing on the cake to me is how Scott makes the song sound exactly like old morning radio shows bumpers; really light, catchy and even a call name. The romantic “Come Into This Room” follows and I just have to say it’s refreshing to hear a song striving to be romantic is actually romantic. After hearing so many hackneyed attempts at this by popular country artists, my ears almost forgot what a romantic love song should sound like. So I extend a thank you to Scott for redeeming my faith that these songs can still exist.

“Loretta” is the third cover song on the album and it’s by the legendary Townes Van Zandt. Scott really hits a home run with the cover songs he chooses and of course you never go wrong with a Townes song. When it comes to Van Zandt songs, you just need to hear them for yourself. The final cover song on the album is James Taylor’s “Another Grey Morning.” The song is about waking up and living out the same things each day. The woman in the song is so exasperated with the monotony that she thinks she would maybe rather have death over another grey morning. It’s a little extreme, but for anyone who has felt depressed, they could relate to the feeling. Couchville Sessions closes out with “Free (This Is The Love Song).” It’s what it says it is, as Scott sings a love song he probably should have sung sooner to a woman he loves. It comes from a man who has experienced life and realizes he’s made mistakes along the way and this is one he’s trying to amend. It’s another nugget of wisdom Scott imparts upon the listener.

Upon the very first listen of Couchville Sessions, I instantly connected with it and loved it. It’s like a long-lost friend you knew you never had and found again. If you’re not familiar with the work of Darrell Scott, just listen to this once and you’ll be blown away. The songwriting is fantastic and the instrumentation is pretty damn good too. The only thing I would say I don’t like about the album is it runs a tad too long at 14 songs, even though every single song is good. It’s hard to believe these songs have just been sitting around for 15 years. We can only hope we hear the rest of the 45 songs recorded in that same session. In the meantime I can’t recommend Couchville Sessions enough. You aren’t going to get too much better than this.

Grade: 9/10

The Hodgepodge: Why I Put So Much Stock into Songwriting

Will Hoge solo at ACM @UCO Performance Lab, Oklahoma City, OK. December 4, 2015
Will Hoge solo at ACM @UCO Performance Lab, Oklahoma City, OK. December 4, 2015

After finally listening to Sturgill Simpson’s interview with Marc Maron on the WTF Podcast and listening to Guy Clark for the past day or more, I’ve been thinking a lot about song lyrics and songwriting as a whole. Clark was a masterful songwriter. It’s a shame to hear about his passing as he joins a long list of music legends lost in 2016. Do yourself a favor and explore Clark’s catalog if you haven’t yet.

As a music fan, lyrics are what draw me into a song (which is why I catch myself focusing on the song’s content more than anything when reviewing music). I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry, and love dissecting songs with abstract lyrics. I also enjoy writing stories on my own time. And while it’s been over a year since I’ve worked on a screenplay, I’m still constantly crafting stories in my head. I say all this to show how I’ve essentially conditioned myself over the years to look at the stories and words used to communicate the messages of songs.

That’s not all that goes into a song obviously, but lyrics are the first thing I notice, and the part of the song I typically hold in a higher regard. The beauty with songs, and poetry in general, is the typical sort nature of the format requires skill to convey details in a short amount of time. This is why the laundry-list type songs work in popular country. Bonfire, moonlight, beer, and trucks set the scene. It’s enough generic detail for the mindless listener to easily fill in the blanks to his or her own party. But in well-written songs, one line or one specific word can convey emotion or provide detail that a different, lesser word or line could not. The example at the front of my brain is “The Funeral” by Turnpike Troubadours. The entire song deals with a rebel son, Jimmy, returning home after a while for his father’ funeral. It’s clear he’s the black sheep of the family and there’s quite a bit of tension in the song’s subtext. In the final verse, there’s a line that says “he knew his daddy’s .38 was in that trunk buried deep, and it’d find its rightful owner once his mama was asleep.” To me, the word “rightful” hammers home the narcissism and selfishness the rest of song builds up about Jimmy.

The main problem with Music Row is how desperate these songs seem to stay relevant with the younger demographic. Building whole songs off pop-culture phrases like snapbacks and “said no one ever” or maintaining buzzwords to add a self-imposed legitimacy to a song. As evidenced by a majority of the singles from the past five years mainly, it’s become monotonous with the same kinds of songs, settings, actions being sung and written.

The CMA has a songwriters’ series where the songwriters from the major labels get their chance to sing the songs they wrote for singers like Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, and more. It’s a chance for these songwriters to share their stories as to how they come up with the songs. Yet with so many songs of the same nature, you get boring stories of how three guys in a room manufacture a hit. For instance, Luke Laird shares the same kind of story for how “American Kids” was written and how “Take a Back Road” was written. Essentially it’s a song that came out of how they all grew up. While it’s great for the songwriter to have the spotlight for a moment, it’s also a little disappointing when it’s a mediocre song with no special story.

Compare that to hearing Wendell Mobley sing “There Goes My Life.” While he doesn’t share the story of the song at the show, the story of the song makes his soulful performance that much more powerful. Mobley fathered a daughter while only in high school, and that daughter passed away at just one year old. Outside of the back story, “There Goes My Life” is still a great, well-written song. And I’m not saying every songwriter needs to sing the song they wrote about one of their worst moments in life, but I think it’s disappointing to hear something like “this is how me and some other guys grew up, so we just put random phrases together that rhymed.”

It appears that we’re on the brink of some more meat in songs produced on Music Row. Going back to the level of maturity from 10/15 years ago will take some time. The labels won’t go from 0 to 60 right away, but it seems that they’re slowly making the move toward maturity…or so they say. Even with a deeply personal, religious song on If I’m Honest, Blake Shelton has still recorded an immature revenge song in light of his divorce from Miranda. The leaked lyrics for “She’s Got a Way with Words” are mean-spirited, but what else can you expect from Blake?

At the end of the day, it’s been the constant immaturity from the songs that’s continued to turn me off from mainstream country and helped me further appreciate Americana, Red Dirt, select Texas Country, and independent singer/songwriters. For the most part, the songs are written from a place of honesty and vulnerability that I have the utmost respect for. As a music fan, there’s honestly nothing better than sitting in a listening room with a great songwriter on stage, aided only by an acoustic guitar (or piano), and pouring his/her heart out while singing their songs. I know that’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s something I think every music fan should experience. With the rate that Nashville has gone for the past decade, it’s an experience you’re more likely to find outside of the mainstream realm of country music.

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases

  • The Honeycutters’ On The Ropes will be released tomorrow.
  • Dierks Bentley’s Black will be released on May 27th.
  • Also released on the 27th is Yarn’s This Is The Year.
  • Maren Morris’ highly anticipated debut, Hero, will be released in two weeks on June 3rd.
  • First we had Hold My Beer Vol. 1, now we get Watch This! Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers will release a live acoustic album from their Hold My Beer and Watch This tour. Watch This will be released June 3rd.
  • Lori McKenna will release The Bird & the Rifle on July 29.

Throwback Thursday Songs

I don’t have a non-country suggestion this week, so I’ll include some extra Guy Clark songs here. Seriously, go listen to him.

Tweet of the Week

It’s starting to seem that way.

A Nightmare iTunes Review

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 6.56.30 PM

A review praising Cole Swindell’s new album and hoping that he attains Luke Bryan’s superstar status. Cole Swindell is already basically Luke 2.0, but I hope that doesn’t evolve any further.

The Hodgepodge: Final of the Year, Feature Ideas & Open Thread

The holiday season is getting ready to go into full swing with Thanksgiving next week. Not to mention, Derek and myself are going to start working on our year-end award lists and nominations. So this will be the final Hodgepodge of 2015.

It’s hard to believe how fast a year can go by and how much can happen when you look back at it all. Country Perspective has grown even bigger and has reached more readers than I ever imagined, so I thank you all for your support and kind words. This is what keeps us motivated to continue to write and bring you exciting content. Speaking of that I’ve been contemplating new features to introduce to the blog in 2016. I want to expand the variety on here and I’ve already got a couple of ideas I’m seriously considering. But I would love to hear from you too. What is something you would like to see? I would love some feedback.

By the way a new writer is already set to join us next year. But you’ll have to wait until January to find out…

We plan on reviewing a few more albums and singles in the next couple of weeks. Let us know what you would love to see covered most that we have not yet. No, we will not review the Old Dominion album. Please suggest good music.

You can basically treat this Hodgepodge as an open thread to discuss whatever you want to discuss in country and Americana right now. Also you can throw out some questions for Derek and myself that we will do our best to answer. You guys know how these Q&A Hodgepodges work. Just don’t ask us something impossible or go over five questions (Each reader can ask up to five questions). Again thank you for reading the Hodgepodge in 2015 and we look forward to bringing it back again in 2016.

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases 

  • The last major album release of the year appears to be the debut album of Cam on December 11. It’s titled Untamed and is highly likely to be the final review of the year.
  • Alan Jackson released a three-CD box set called Genuine: The Alan Jackson Story. It features his biggest hits and a few unreleased songs. It’s exclusively available through Walmart and in my opinion is a great Christmas gift for any country fan.
  • Shovels & Rope just came out with a surprise of their own. Through Dualtone Music, they’re releasing a collaborative project on November 20 titled Busted Jukebox Volume 1. NPR announced it and debuted the music, which you can stream here. It’s covers of some of their favorite songs and they explain in the NPR piece the meaning of each song for them and how they came about. The guest artists who join them are very talented and include the likes of Lucius, Shakey Graves, The Milk Carton Kids and JD McPherson. I definitely suggest giving it a listen.
  • Next Friday is Black Friday and that means there will be some great Record Store Black Friday Day releases. For those that collect vinyl there are some country and Americana releases that will catch your eye. Some of the ones that stood out to me (click on each for more info):

Great Music Currently at Country Radio

The very best of country radio right here in a nice playlist. In order for a song to be added to the list, it must currently be in the top 60 of the Billboard Country Airplay chart, so this will be updated weekly.

Throwback Thursday Song

Keith Whitley – “When You Say Nothing At All” – One of the artists we can thank for bringing back traditional country in the late 80s and someone who died way too young, Keith Whitley is an artist everyone should appreciate. I plan to dig into his catalog more over the holidays.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Eagles of Death Metal – This band has been in the news lately for all of the wrong reasons. They were the band playing on the stage at the Le Bataclan in Paris when terrorists attacked it last week and left hundreds dead and injured. The band was able to escape unharmed, but their merchandise manager and others they knew did not. Right now they are obviously recovering from this traumatic event. I recently checked their music out and they are a very talented group. The origin of how they formed and came together is quite interesting. Obviously it’s not about the music right now with them, but some day again it will. And it should be, as they make great music and I recommend giving it a listen.

Tweet of the Week

Yeah I don’t have anything else to add. This song will be a top contender for our Worst Song of the Year award.

iTunes Review That Rocks

Old Dominion Sucks

This was left under the new Old Dominion album. See why I’m not reviewing this? Those other great artists got reviewed though and you’re much better off listening to their albums than anything Old Dominion has ever touched.

Thanks for reading and be sure to weigh in below!