Song Review: Chris Stapleton, “Joy Of My Life”

This is okay, but I wish Chris Stapleton would put his musical powers to better use than this.

This take may be sacrilege, but I would argue that Chris Stapleton and Sam Hunt have something in common: They both arrived to lot of fanfare (although only Hunt saw chart success initially) and seemed primed to conquer country music in the mid/late 2010s…and then both quickly dove out of the spotlight, faded back to the pack, and now seem to be content releasing occasional singles under Thanos’s reign. Frankly, Stapleton hasn’t released anything that’s really worth paying attention to since the Korner was founded, and while radio has finally kinda-sorta started to get board with the beard (he’s had two singles reach #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart since 2020), neither one constituted a ringing endorsement of his work. I foresee that trend continuing for “Joy Of My Life,” a rare cover-song radio release and the third official single from Stapleton’s Starting Over album. It’s a paint-by-numbers love song that does little to distinguish itself from its peers (which at this this point seems to be a feature rather than a bug), and while Stapleton drags it kicking and screaming into the realm of respectability, it feels like a waste of time for one of the defining power voices of this generation.

On one hand, I like that Stapleton is developing a consistent and recognizable sound through his recent production work…but I’d trade consistent and recognizable sound for interesting and attention-grabbing any day of the week. The song opens with a prominent acoustic guitar and some light-touch snare percussion, and the only major addition from then on is a slick, soulful electric axe that covers the bridge solo and outro. The bright tones and relaxed tempo create a warm-yet-chill vibe that supports the lyrics while stopping short of overshadowing them, but given how little the lyrics have to say, I kind of wish the mix had stepped in a bit more forcefully, since it’s really the only thing giving the track any sort of romantic feel. The song has just enough energy to keep it from plodding, but at times it can feel like a placeholder, fading into the background as weaker elements of the song are pushed forward. All things considered, it’s a solid sound for what it is and what it does, but it leaves me wanting more as it goes along.

I’ll tackle the lyrics next, since despite being written by John Fogerty they are by far the weakest part of the song. The narrator intends to sing the praises of their partner by calling them “the joy of my life,” but the way they hype up the other person is beyond generic, with references to heaven/angels and token lines declaring that material and popular clout pale in comparison. (In truth, despite a 4:34 run time, there isn’t a whole lot to the song at all, with three short verses and a few choruses spread across the slow-rolling mix. The whole thing is incredibly boring on balance, and it’s overly-dependent on the listener to provide actual meaning to the song through their own experiences. While I suppose there are so many ways to profess your love to someone, this trope has been a genre staple since its inception, and putting together a song that rises above the noise is a tough job (perhaps that’s why Stapleton decided to lean on Fogerty’s expertise after his own failed flailings on songs like “Millionaire”). Frankly, this track feels a little overdone in 2022, and doesn’t tap the emotional veins that it hoped to mine.

However, Stapleton’s voice is more than capable of drawing emotion from its difference, and it’s really the only reason to consider tuning in here. No, he’s not maxing out his power or range like he’s done in the past, but instead he’s leaning on his charisma to let the listener share in the emotion he feels towards the other person. His vocal texture is his biggest asset here, as it gives the narrator a weathered and long-tenured feel, which in turn makes the relationship feel deep and longstanding as well. (Give this song to someone like Thomas Rhett or even Luke Bryan, and it just wouldn’t have the same depth or meaning to it.) If there’s any nitpicking I would do, I might push Stapleton in the same way I pushed the producer: There’s really nothing to the lyrics, so he could apply a bit more power and passion to take over the track and perhaps give it some extra weight. Still, if Stapleton is the only thing separating you from the rest of the pack…well, you could do a lot worse.

“Joy Of My Life” is a poor song with decent execution, and given the state of country music right now, I guess we’ll have to take it. I wouldn’t put it up alongside some of the stronger tracks I’ve heard recently (and I’m not sure I’d call it terribly memorable either), but it’s Chris Stapleton with his signature sound doing some decent emoting for a change, and for the moment that’s enough for me. I doubt it’ll be enough to catapult him back into the day-to-day country music conversation, but given that Starting Over is starting to show its age, it’s a decent bridge song for whatever he decides to pursue next. Let’s just hope that “next” is more interesting than “now.”

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two to see what you think.

Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (November 2021 Edition)

With the end of the year approaching and song reviews being some of the least-interesting posts that I make, it’s time to take a wider view of the genre and try to cover our bases for the end-of-year lists coming next month. I think the genre has improved slightly overall from the bland soundalike tracks we got for most of the year, but if the Pulse scores are any indication, there’s still a lot of uninteresting junk flooding the airwaves right now. So how does our latest crop of singles fare? Let’s start with the biggest of the bunch:

Adele ft. Chris Stapleton, “Easy On Me”

This song has dominated the Hot 100 basically since it arrived on the scene, and bringing in Chris Stapleton seems like a dream pairing of two of the best power vocalists in the business today…so why is my reaction to it so muted? Part of it is that the writing here is surprisingly weak and vague, as it doesn’t really make it clear who the song is aimed at (I thought it was at her ex, but apparently it’s for their son?), and the narrator’s story and explanation just isn’t that compelling or interesting (people making relationship decisions that they later come to regret makes up at least 25% of Nashville’s entire catalog). The two artists have decent vocal chemistry and it’s nice to see a Stapleton feature that actually uses him to push the song’s emotional boundaries (probably because Adele is one of the few singers in the planet he can’t out-sing), but he adds a rougher edge to the vocals (especially when he’s screaming them out on the bridge) that clashes with the softer, slicker feel of the piano (which is the only non-vocal instrument present here), and the tracks veers hard into ear-splitting territory when both singers turn it loose on the bridge. In the end, the song is okay, but there are a surprising number of tracks on the Mediabase chart right now that I’d pick over it.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few listens, I suppose.

Cole Swindell & Lainey Wilson, “Never Say Never”

This song is trying way too hard to be something it’s not. The tale of two star-crossed lovers who just can’t seem to makes things work beyond the physical attraction is a tale old as time, and the song tries to use minor chords, dark, foreboding instrument tones, and loud, hard-edged guitars and percussion (which bounces between a drum set and a slicker beat) to inject a sense of drama and danger into the song. Unfortunately, the garden-variety off-and-on relationship in the lyrics simply doesn’t warrant the hype (it reminds me a lot of Travis Denning’s boring “After A Few”), and while both Lainey Wilson and Cole Swindell put their hearts into their performance (honestly, I like their vocal chemistry far more than Adele and Stapleton’s), they can’t convince the audience of the story’s importance. It’s just an oversung, overproduced batch of empty sonic calories, and I sincerely hope that Swindell and Wilson find some stronger material to work with the next time around.

Rating: 5/10. I’m pretty sure I’m never going to remember this one.

Drew Parker, “While You’re Gone”

Parker is a Georgia native who’s attempting to make to leap from songwriter to performer after signing with Warner Bros. in either 2020 or 2021 depending on the source you find, but he’s not going anywhere with his debut drivel. The song features yet another delusional narrator waiting for a traveling ex to come back and imagining how much she misses him (give it up bro, she ain’t coming back), and the fact that he occasionally admits the futility of his feelings (“maybe you really are long gone and I’m just fooling myself”) isn’t enough to make him a likeable or sympathetic character. Everything else here is cookie-cutter and generic: The reliance on a buzzword-filled waiting spot featuring beer and trucks in the evening (also, what’s the point of specifying that he has a “BP PBR”? It sounds as dumb as me saying I’m drinking a Hannaford’s Powerade), the bland guitar-and-drum production, and Parker’s undistinctive voice that could be mistaken for five other singers in the genre (put anyone else behind the mic, and the song wouldn’t change at all). The song offers no compelling reason to listen or pay attention to it, and I’m getting really tired of indistinguishable tracks like this, especially one that feature an annoyingly-presumptuous attitude from the narrator. I didn’t put up with it from Tucker Beathard or Taylor Swift, and I won’t do it here either.

Rating: 4/10. Pass.

Scotty McCreery, “Damn Strait”

George Strait’s gotten enough name-drops in the last ten years to fill an encyclopedia, and has been around so long that this isn’t even the first song built around his song titles (forget Brad Paisley’s “Bucked Off,” I remember Tim McGraw singing “Give It To Me Strait” all the way back in 1994). I’m kind of torn on this one:

  • McCreery is a talented vocalist, but he’s not terribly believable in this role (he’s seven years younger than “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” so was it really his ex’s favorite song?)
  • The song is just a by-the-book lost-love song, but it does a decent job balancing the genuine sentimentality of a breakup and the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of hating a singer because of it.
  • The song title references are hit or miss: Some work okay (“Blue Clear Sky” is probably the best of the bunch), but some feel really forced (the “Give It Away” and “I Hate Everything” ones especially).

I think what sells me on this one in the end is the production: It starts as your typical guitar-and-drum arrangement, but once the steel guitar shows up it becomes the defining feature of the mix. It gives the sound some warmth and texture, while also helping it stand out from other tracks around it, most of which sprinkle the instrument in just enough to convince Billboard it’s “country.” It allows the song to pass the context test, as it wouldn’t sound out of place alongside Strait’s own material. That’s enough to elevate it above the mediocre masses for me.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to see how it hits you.

Chase Rice, “If I Were Rock & Roll”

While McCreery paid homage to Strait, Rice tried to tip his cap to the latest member of the name-drop club, Eric Church…except Church’s material is far better than anything Rice could dream of putting together. From the filtered guitars to the textured drums to the restrained vocal delivery, Rice and his producer do their darnedest to copy Church’s signature country-rock style on this track, and while they end up with a half-decent reproduction in the end, the song falls completely flat thanks to its random, pandering, borderline-nonsensical lyrics: It uses an overly-simplistic “if I was X, I’d be Y” setup to work in references to Dale Earnhardt, the SEC, Johnny Cash, and Jesus Christ, it uses a bizarre flag-patch reference to shout out the military, and it throws in a grandfather/grandson bit that is both blatantly obvious and completely pointless. This is about a scattershot a track as you’ll ever hear, and its weak attempt to bring it all together on the chorus as a lost-love song doesn’t work at all (and the generally-upbeat production doesn’t help matters). The bridge is the closest the song comes to tying everything together, but it paints the narrator is an unflattering light: It lays out a blueprint for what he should do if he was “a smart man,” while at the same time insinuating that that’s exactly what he didn’t do. Listening to this track is an exercise in frustration, and the only good thing that could come of it would be for Church to sue Rice for trademark infringement and doing damage to his brand.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Chris Young & Mitchell Tenpenny, “At The End Of A Bar”

While this track is at least up front that it won’t be plowing new ground, it doesn’t make it any more interesting to listen to. My first question is why Mitchell Tenpenny was allowed anywhere near this thing: It wasn’t written as a duet, the presence of a second person adds nothing to the song, and Tenpenny’s weak, raspy voice is completely outclassed by Young’s solid baritone. Where McCreery passes the context test, this song really doesn’t, as its paint-by-numbers guitar-and-drum doesn’t fit in with either a classic bar setting or the 90s song it name-drops (“Brand New Man,” “Time Marches On”), and by taking a more-neutral and serious approach to a bar song, it deftly avoids all the reasons people actually listen to a bar song in the first place (i.e, it’s either to party hardy or cry in your beer). The imagery and scenes are exactly what you’d expect to see: Love being found, love being lost, bartender stories and (of course) lost and lots and lots of alcohol. By focusing on what happens in the bar, the song fails to give the place any atmosphere, or make it seem like somewhere that you would actually want to go. Toss in the fact that the song feels half-written with only one-and-a-half verses, and you’re left with a bland snorefest that exists merely for the sake of existing.

Rating: 5/10. There are way better beer-joint odes to spend your time listening to.

Song Review: Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave”

Note to Chris Stapleton and Mercury Nashville: You should probably try harder.

Remember when Stapleton was the critical darling who was going to save country music from itself? Fast forward to today, and Stapleton has become one of the most boring artists in Nashville, releasing uninteresting singles like “Millionaire” and “Starting Over” that blend in with the rest of the genre, spend forever crawling up the charts, and then are completely forgotten two months later. I’d like to say that “You Should Probably Leave,” the second single from his Starting Over album, bucks that trend and brings something fresh to the airwaves, but it doesn’t: It’s an incomplete and surprisingly sterile song that leaves the listener feeling absolutely nothing when it’s over, and it makes me wonder why we were so adamant that Stapleton receive mainstream airplay in the first place.

Any way you slice, there’s really nothing to the production here: It’s a minimalist arrangement featuring minimal emotion or presence. The track opens with some simple riffs from a slick electric guitar and a drum line that’s so basic it sounds like a Garageband loop, and outside of a Hammond B3 organ that slowly works its way into the mix, that’s pretty you all you get. (The notable exception, however, is a deeper-voiced guitar with some actual texture that pops up just for the bridge solo, which makes no sense because it’s the only instrument that actually catches the listener’s interest and makes them pay attention.) I’m fond of using the term “spacious” for songs that have an expansive sound that radiates into the atmosphere, but this song feels incredibly constrained instead, refusing to fill the space it’s given and establishing no atmosphere at all (the slicker guitar suggests the slightest hint of a sex jam, but there’s no feeling behind it—instead, the vibe I get is that of a live performance with a terrible sound system). It provides no support to the writing because it doesn’t provide any cues to the listener about how to feel (which, given how half-baked the lyrics are, might be because the producer couldn’t figure out how it should feel either). In the end, it’s a sound that exists without justification or purpose, and the listener has moved on by the time they reach the second verse.

I would say that the song would have been better as an a capella performance, but unfortunately Stapleton doesn’t bring any more emotion or charm to the performance than the producer does. While there are no technical issues with the performance, it strikes me as a square-peg-in-a-round-hole situation: Stapleton is a power vocalist whose strength is pushing his voice to do things no one else can do, and sticking him with a slog like this track that forces him to dial back his approach feels like a bad decision. Without that vocal power, Stapleton struggles to put any feeling behind his lines, and he comes across as more of an impartial commentator (think Jim Nantz covering a golf match) than as a narrator struggling to balance his feelings and thoughts. When the narrator’s thinking evolves over the course of the song, Stapleton’s delivery doesn’t really keep up—his response to the plot twist in the third verse is just to dial back his power even further, which ends up as a marginal improvement at best. It’s a weak performance overall, and hopefully it convinces Stapleton’s team to find material that better fits his vocal style in the future.

The lyrics here are a mixed bag, and focus on certain (and often overlooked) elements of storytelling while completely neglecting the story itself. The premise is that the narrator is together with another person and tells them that “you should probably leave” because staying inevitably leads to them sleeping together. Story progression is something that most songs neglect these days, so it was heartening (although completely predictable) to watch the story shift over time as the narrator’s resolve weakened (eventually want overrules prudence, and in the end the narrator is the one hoping no one will repeat the hook). The problem is that we’re given exactly zero context to set up the conflict: The song begs the question “Why should the other person leave?”, but it never gives us a satisfactory answer. Are the protagonists friends that are afraid of taking the next step in their relationship? Are they stuck in an on-again/off-again relationship cycle à la Travis Denning’s “After A Few” that never works out? Are they cheating on other people? Being intentionally vague in a song can occasionally be useful, but an information gap this wide leaves the audience completely confused as to how to feel about the situation: Should we feel happy or bad about what happened? Should we sympathize with the narrator, or should we criticize them for letting this happen? With no hint from the production or vocals, our only option is not to care about the song at all, since it doesn’t provide a reason for us to do otherwise.

“You Should Probably Leave” simply doesn’t justify being here in the first place. With a sound devoid of feeling, vocals devoid of power or emotion, and lyrics devoid of detail, we’re left with yet another forgettable, uninspired offering from an artist who’s far too talented to just keep dumping junk like this on the public. A few years ago, I thought Chris Stapleton had a chance to give country music a Randy Travis moment and fundamentally reshape the genre, but that moment has long since passed, and we’re left with just another singer singing just another song ad infinitum. If Stapleton’s going to keep dumping unremarkable tracks like this one on us, maybe it’s time to consider the unthinkable and give his spot in Nashville to someone who will make better (or at least more interesting) use of it.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Song Review: Chris Stapleton, “Starting Over”

Chris Stapleton claims he’s “Starting Over,” but this sounds like the same thing he’s always done.

If you had told me a few years ago that I’d be referring to a country artist as Thanos, I probably would have guessed that it would be Chris Stapleton rather than Luke Combs. However, after “Millionaire” peaked at #2 on Billboard’s airplay chart last March, Stapleton disappeared from the radio entirely, and he stayed away for so long that I wrote a post back in January wondering what the heck had happened. Now, however, the hiatus is over: Stapleton has emerged from his hiding place with a new single “Starting Over,” the leadoff single and title track for an upcoming project coming this November. The title is a bit misleading, however: This is the same sort of uninteresting material that Stapleton had been pushing before his radio vacation, and while it grabs your attention, it struggles to keep it.

There isn’t a whole lot to the production here: The song is mostly Stapleton singing over a bright, jangling acoustic guitar, with a barely-noticeable Hammond B3 organ providing quiet atmospheric chords and a light-touch snare drum keeping time in the back. (The arrangement is so sparse that even on my bass-light audio setup, the bass guitar is not only noticeable, but it might be the liveliest instrument here outside of the acoustic lead.) However, the mix winds up feeling surprisingly monotonous and one-note: It grabs you with its optimistic, forward-looking vibe, but its simple chord structure, unwavering strum pattern (even on the supposed ‘solo’), and lack of instrument diversity causes the sound wear out its welcome quickly, and by the second verse the listener is already waiting for the next song to start playing. Overall, the mix is bright but boring, and it really could have used some extra flourishes (more instruments? An actual solo?) to spice things up and keep listeners engaged.

Chris Stapleton’s calling card is his distinct vocal and unrivaled vocal power, but only the former shows up on “Starting Over.” The decision to rein him in is understandable (the song has an easygoing vibe that a forceful delivery just wouldn’t fit), but it still lessens the song’s impact on the listener and makes it a little too easy to ignore. Stapleton’s trademark charisma is still there, and he certainly seems believable in the role of a narrator craving a escape from routine (and after I called him out for sounding so melancholy on “Millionaire,” he actually sounds upbeat this time around), but he doesn’t sell the story well enough to convince the listener to care about it.  While the performance isn’t on the level of ‘it would sound the same no matter who was singing it,’ it’s still disappointing that a vocalist of Stapleton’s caliber would give us something this lukewarm and forgettable.

The lyrics here have the narrator pitching the idea of leaving town and “starting over” to their partner, which is a fairly well-explored topic in the genre (although less so lately). The narrator’s argument, unfortunately, is not a good one: They spend a lot of time talking about how hard such a journey would be (“There’s rivers to cross and hills to climb/Some days we might fall apart/And some nights might feel cold and dark”), but don’t talk about the payoff at all, instead offering vague, generic platitudes (“But nobody wins afraid of losing/and the hard roads are the ones worth choosing”), leaving the listener to fill the gap with their own motivations for moving. On top of that, the narrator can be inexplicably contradictory at times: They say “I’ve had all of this town I can stand,” but then proclaim “Wherever we are is where I wanna be,” so why isn’t “right here” good enough? (Frankly, if I was the partner the narrator was pitching this idea to, I’d tell them to go sober up and stop all this crazy talk.) Tack on a hook that feels very tacked-on (it’s just thrown in at the end of the chorus for a rhyme), and I’m left wondering if this was really the best Stapleton and his co-writer could put together.

“Starting Over” is a perfect example of radio filler: The song just seems to exist, and it provides no reason for the audience to care that it’s there. The production is upbeat but uninspired, the writing is directionless and unconvincing, and the return of Chris Stapleton isn’t enough to keep the audience engaged for the entire track. A comeback song needs a bit more something (a punchy sound, some strong emotion, etc.) to grab peoples’ attention, and this track is a bit too bland to do the job (“Second One To Know” would have been a better choice, even though it’s been out for a while). Stapleton passed on what looked like a golden opportunity to dominate the country music conversation last year, and this song won’t be enough to earn him a second chance.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t go out of your way for this one.

Hey, Where Did Chris Stapleton Go?

I’m not ready to write a deep dive on where Chris Stapleton’s career went wrong, but I’m about ready to call out a search party for the man.

As 2019 arrived, Chris Stapleton appeared to be on the verge of a major breakthrough in country music. The previous year, he’d cleaned up on the awards circuit (scoring several major CMA, ACM, and even Grammy awards), he had finally broken through the radio blockade with “Broken Halos” (#1) and “Millionare” (#2), and he’d even rode a collaboration with Justin Timberlake (“Say Something”) into the Top 10 of the Hot 100. With a wave of traditional fever sweeping the genre, Stapleton seemed to be perfectly positioned to ride it to superstardom.

Fast forward to 2020, and you might as well put Stapleton’s face on the side of a milk carton. Outside of a now-five-year-old track that just won’t die, he was completely absent from country radio, and whatever buzz he had generated up to this point was lost. What happened? Where had Chris Stapleton gone?

So I put on my headlamp, fired up my search engine, and went scurrying across the web to see what had happened. What I found was that Stapleton hadn’t disappeared as much as he had diversified:

  • He’d been part of a few notable collaborations, working with Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars on “Blow” and with P!nk on “Love Me Anyway.”
  • He’d contributed a song “The Ballad Of The Lonesome Cowboy” to the Toy Story 4 soundtrack.
  • He’d spent much of the summer and fall on tour, and is gearing up to do the same in 2020.
  • Heck, he collaborated with LEGO to make the video headlining this post!

Stapleton may not have been active on the radio, but he was active in nearly every other facet of the business, and managed to work in a few side projects as well. This begs the next question: Why? He was in line to dominate the genre the way Thanos is doing now, so why pass on the opportunity?

While I don’t have a definitive answer on this, there are three factors we should consider:

  • Country radio, as large as it may loom in Nashville, really wasn’t that important to Stapleton’s rise to fame. His radio singles languished in the mid teens for much of 2016 and 2017, yet Traveller sold four million copies and his CMA performance with Timberlake went viral anyway. Stapleton is pretty much the one guy who can walk away from the radio and not walk away from mainstream success. So what if his material wasn’t on the airwaves? They weren’t playing him that much anyway.
  • The radio climate changed dramatically over the course of 2019: The traditional mini-boom weakened and gave way to Boyfriend country, bringing many of the same people who profited during the Metro-Bro era back to the forefront. Stapleton’s never been known as a staunch traditionalist (this is a guy who co-wrote Thomas Rhett’s “South Side,” after all), so if folks like Jon Pardi were fighting like heck to get radio traction, Stapleton wasn’t going to get the benefit of the doubt either. If the genre was actively turning away from you, why fight an uphill battle when you don’t have to?
  • Even if Stapleton had planned on rejoining the radio circus, he didn’t really have much to do it with. Both From A Room volumes were released in 2017, and albums generally only have a two-year span at most, so any single release would likely have to have been freshly recorded for the occasion. (Yes, “Tennessee Whiskey” breaks all of these rules, but given that it’s still languishing at the bottom of the charts, don’t expect it to be a trendsetter going forward.) With Stapleton’s busy schedule in 2019, he likely didn’t have a lot of studio time to dedicate to his own project.

This brings us to our final question: Will we see Chris Stapleton make a triumphant return to the radio in 2020? The signs seem promising: The summer and fall are already spoken for, but he’s reportedly been playing new stuff on the road, and the Boyfriend trend hasn’t looked terribly strong lately. If he’s going to reboot his mainstream career, 2020 would be the year to do it (especially since recent developments in the world make me wonder if we’ll ever make it to 2021…). Regardless of what you think of his musical contribution up to this point (personally I think his singles have been mostly mediocre), he remains one of the strongest vocalists in the genre, and country music is better off with him than without him.

Song Review: Chris Stapleton, “Tennessee Whiskey”

Is there such a thing as waiting too long? Because Chris Stapleton’s about to find out.

I labeled Kane Brown a forgotten man in my review of “Homesick,” but at least I remembered he existed. I can’t say the same for Chris Stapleton: After the snorefest that was “Millionaire,” Stapleton fell off my radar completely, and hadn’t entered my mind at all this year until a song from his Traveller album suddenly reappeared on the airplay charts. That song? “Tennessee Whiskey,” a Dean Dillon/Linda Hargrove tune that was covered by both David Allan Coe and George Jones (the latter being the definitive version) in the early 1980s. Stapleton generated a ton of buzz when he covered the song with Justin Timberlake on the CMA awards, but that was back in 2015, and at the time Mercury Records (which still seems to have no idea what to do with Stapleton) released “Nobody To Blame” as a single instead. Four years later, “Tennessee Whiskey” is a zombie that refuses to die, and beyond Stapleton’s vocal prowess, I don’t really see why. While I will credit him for putting his own spin on the track, the result is a plodding bore that doesn’t get its message across as effectively as Jones’s version.

Producer Dave Cobb seems to favor sparse, simple arrangements when working with Stapleton (why get in the way of his critically-acclaimed voice?), and the production here is no different: You’ve got a few guitars (an acoustic one for the verses, a slick electric one to provide some simple atmospheric stabs are a barely-there solo, and a deep-voiced axe that opens the song and fills time between vocal parts), a prominent bass that does more to carry the melody than anything else, and a methodical percussion from a real drum set. It’s one thing to stay out of the singer’s way, however, and another to be sidelined so much that you don’t add anything to the mix. Outside of the bass, nothing here feels necessary or makes a meaningful contribution to the mood, and while the resulting atmosphere is bluesy and captures the narrator’s prior melancholy, its dark, foreboding tone doesn’t reflect the narrator’s newfound lovestruck joy at all. (The fuller piano/string arrangements that Jones leaned on swing more in the opposite direction and favor the good over the bad, which connects with the listener more effectively.) The tempo on Stapleton’s version is also a major problem: It’s less than half of what Coe and Jones were using, and that snail’s pace saps the song of all its energy and makes it drag on and on until the listener is begging for another song to start and end their suffering. I know Cobb didn’t want to step on Stapleton’s lines, but come on, you can’t make Stapleton do everything for you.

Speaking of Stapleton, he is who he is at this point, and thankfully “who he is” is pretty darn good. His range, tone, and vocal charisma remains unmatched in country music, and he does a great job taking the narrator’s pain and sharing it with the listener. The problem, however, is that pain is only half of the equation here: The narrator is supposed to be celebrating his new relationship that is rescuing him from his alcoholic vices. Stapleton, however, follows the lead of the production, and leans into the melancholy vibe almost exclusively throughout the song. (For a guy who’s ecstatic over his partner, he really doesn’t sound like it.) While he attempts to inject some energy into the song via his incredible vocal power, it’s not enough to overcome the trudging tempo and darker tone. It’s not a terrible performance, but it doesn’t fit the song particularly well, and leaves the audience reaching for the previous covers instead.

After this many years, there isn’t a whole lot to say about the lyrics beyond noting that there’s a reason the song has been covered this many times. This may well be is the grandfather of all “love as a drug” songs: The narrator was once caught in the grips of alcoholism, but they have now found a partner and a romance so powerful that no artificial high could ever match the way they feel now. I like the way the writers use the alcohol metaphor throughout the song (especially on the chorus, where different features of different liquors are referenced), and they strike a nice balance between the bleakness of the past and the brightness of the present (which Cobb and Stapleton pretty much ignore). It doesn’t stand out as much now with the plethora of half-baked drug references people have tossed out (remember “Walter White high”? Ugh…), but unlike many of the imitators today, the relationship here feels stronger and more substantial (this is way more than a one-night stand), and the narrator comes across as honest and sympathetic rather than disingenuous and sleazy. It’s a sharp, well-written track whose edge hasn’t been dulled by the passage of time, and it’s a shame that everything else here cant rise to its level.

When it comes to cover songs like “Tennessee Whiskey,” the question I ultimately ask is “Is there any reason to favor the newer version over the original(s)?” Sadly, much like with Brooks and Dunn’s reboot of “Brand New Man” with Luke Combs, the answer here is a solid “No.” The production is too dark and too slow, and Chris Stapleton’s vocals only seem to do half of the job they’re assigned. The George Jones version from 1983 has been the standard for this song for decades, and this forgettable effort doesn’t change that.

Rating: 5/10. Stick with this one instead:

Song Review: Chris Stapleton, “Millionaire”

Reigning Male Vocalist of the Year or not, Chris Stapleton needs to try a lot harder than this.

Stapleton’s been on one heck of a run lately: In addition to the accolades and awards he’s earned over the last few years, his previous single “Broken Halos” finally broke through the radio blockade and became his first No. 1 hit. In a position to capitalize on his momentum and make the world of country music his oyster, Stapleton returns to the radio with “Millionaire,” the leadoff single from the second volume of his From A Room album series, and…wow, this is it? The song is a generic, uninteresting bore that may well win the award for the Most Disappointing Song of 2018.

On one hand, the production is exactly what you would expect from a Stapleton track: A bright acoustic guitar carrying the melody, minimal instrumentation in general (an electric guitar and real drum set jump in halfway through the first verse, and that’s basically it for the entire track), and a slower tempo without a lot of volume. (Unlike some of Stapleton’s prior singles, however, the vocal/instrument balance is perfectly done here, allowing the vocals and instruments to complement each other instead of one overwhelming the other.) This lack of tempo and volume, however, is a huge problem, as what should be a positive, relaxed track ends up feeling monotonic and lifeless, similar to David Lee Murphy’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” Despite the bright tones and happy subject matter, the song just plods along slowly without any energy or emotion. By the second verse, I’m looking at my watch waiting for the next song to start, hoping I can stay awake until then.

Stapleton is the reigning Male Vocalist of the Year for a reason, but something really feels off in his delivery here. The incredible voice with incredible range is still here, but its power is dialed back significantly, and while it makes the vocal/instrument balance better, it seems to keep Stapleton from connecting with his audience in the same way that “Broken Halos” or “Either Way” did. Despite all of the charisma and earnestness he’s demonstrated in the past, he’s just not convincing or believable here, as everything that’s made him so good singing sad or deep songs works against him on a light, fluffy track like this. I’m most struck by just how melancholy Stapleton sounds, despite the fact that he’s supposedly celebrating the romantic wealth he’s found. This is really the first “happy” single Stapleton has released, and given his struggles here, it should probably be his last one for a while.

The lyrics for this track are basically the narrator saying “I’m rich because I’ve found love, even though I have no money,” and it’s not as overdone as the old “love-as-a-drug” trope, it’s not that far behind. (I consider John Anderson’s “Money In The Bank” as the gold standard here.) The imagery isn’t particular vivid or novel, and and some of the comparisons feel tired and generic (“love is more precious than gold,” “eyes that shine…as a diamond mine,” etc.). While it’s intended to be a bright, cheery track that doesn’t really need to be deep or unique, it’s the sort of song that really needs an emotional anchor to back up the writing and fill that gap, and unfortunately neither Stapleton nor his producer can deliver here.

“Millionaire” is a surprisingly weak song from a strong singer who is capable of so much better. The lack of energy and depth from both Chris Stapleton and the production leaves the song feeling shallow and uninteresting, and leaves the listener feeling more “Zzz…” than “Aww…” While it certainly won’t stop Stapleton’s hype train completely, it’s likely going to squander whatever radio momentum “Broken Halos” had earned him.

Rating: 5/10. Stick with his previous singles, and leave this one alone.

Song Review: Chris Stapleton, “Broken Halos”

I like how this song sounds, but I have no idea what this song says.

Despite From A Room: Volume 1 becoming the first gold country record of 2017 (and doing so in a mere month), Chris Stapleton’s run of radio futility continues, as the record’s leadoff single “Either Way” peaked at a mediocre #26 before crashing and burning. Part of the blame lies squarely on Mercury Records’s unexplainable release strategy: “Broken Halos” was released as a promotional single before “Either Way,” (and wound up with a higher Hot Country Singles chart position than “Either Way” ever did), yet the label did not capitalize on the song’s positive reception and is only now pushing it for radio adds as the album’s official second single. After repeated listens, however, I have to say that while “Broken Halos” is a nice song to listen to, its unnecessarily-muddy message leaves me more confused than anything else.

The production here is a major step up from “Either Way.” The volume balance of “Broken Halos” is much better, and the instrumentation is no longer drowned out by Stapleton’s voice. While the only change to the instrument lineup is the addition of a drum set on this song, the mix has noticeably more punch and energy (especially from the acoustic guitar), and there’s a lot less dead space that it has to fill. (The bridge instrumental is still pretty underwhelming, though.) Stapleton’s voice has also been dialed back a notch or two as well, making the vocals and instrumentation equal partners in the track. The mood is much brighter and more positive, and as a result it’s a more pleasant listen than “Either Way.”

Stapleton remains the vocal king of country music, and despite a slightly-more-restrained performance that better matches the production, his voice still retains the power and charisma that defined his earlier material. It’s not a terribly demanding song to sing (its range isn’t too wide, its flow is nice and slow), and it lacks the “oh wow” moments of “Either Way” where Stapleton’s voice could really shine, but he still infuses his delivery with enough emotion and earnestness to pull in listeners. Let’s be honest: The dude could probably sing the phone book and still make it compelling.

Where the song goes a bit astray is in the writing, as it seems to feature two orthogonal threads that are hard to reconcile. The song is called “Broken Halos,” and the oft-repeated hook “Broken halos that used to shine” seems to indicate that the song will be about virtuous people that have fallen from grace and onto hard times. The verses, however, spend their time talking about selfless folks who come into peoples’ lives just long enough to save them, and then move on to the next hard-luck case—in other words, folks whose halos seem to be completely intact and shiny. So who is this song actually about: Former angels, or current ones? The writing, though solid on a technical level, never gives us a clear answer, and the confusion is a slight blemish on an otherwise-solid track.

Overall, “Broken Halos” addresses most of the issues raised about “Either Way,” but incurs a self-inflicted wound in the form of the writing that limits its potential. It’s still a good song that features stellar performances from both Stapleton and the musicians, but it could have been a great song, and that’s a huge missed opportunity.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a listen to see what you think.

Song Review: Chris Stapleton, “Either Way”

You can’t stop a voice like Chris Stapleton’s. You can’t even contain it. All you can do is get out of its way.

Stapleton’s solo debut album Traveller hit country music like a freight train in 2015, selling almost two million copies over its lifetime, receiving almost universal critical acclaim, and winning Stapleton a boatload of awards, including a pair of Grammy Awards. Despite this success, however, country radio has been lukewarm on Stapleton’s work, with Traveller‘s official singles “Nobody To Blame” and “Parachute” only reaching #10 and #17 respectively on the Billboard airplay charts. (Part of this is the fault of Stapleton’s record label Mercury Nashville, which has a bizarre habit of having him give lauded performances of certain songs on award shows, and then releasing completely different songs as radio singles.) “Either Way” is the leadoff single for Stapleton’s second album From A Room: Volume 1, and Stapleton’s awesome talents are on full display, even if the song winds up being a slight step backwards from his Traveller work.

The producers (Stapleton and Dave Cobb) apparently took this post’s opening statement to heart: There is nothing between Stapleton and his audience aside from an acoustic guitar providing a melody. The guitar is muted and sets a suitably-serious mood for the song, but it’s caught in a bit of a Catch-22: It’s completely overshadowed whenever Stapleton is singing, but the moments where Stapleton is silent and the guitar is just playing the same riff over and over feel empty and unnecessary, and the short solo it offers on the bridge is underwhelming. The track also suffers from a major volume balance issue (which is probably unavoidable given Stapleton’s incredible range), forcing you to turn the song way up loud to hear him and the guitar on the verses, and then crank it way back down when he unloads on the chorus. It’s not a huge problem, but it makes the song a real pain to try to listen to.

With such sparse production, the pressure is put on Stapleton to deliver a stellar performance, and for the most part he does just that. Stapleton is the strongest vocalist in country music today (and perhaps the strongest in a long while), and when he brings the full power of his voice to bear (as he does several times on the chorus here), it’ll make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Unfortunately, the verses here keep Stapleton locked into the lower, quieter range of his voice, and while he’s more than capable of operating at that range, the volume balance issue mentioned earlier means you’re forever straining to hear and understand him. In total, however, Stapleton’s vocal are strong enough to do the heavy lifting for the track, drawing listeners in and compelling them to stay.

Thematically, the song describes the plight of a couple trapped in a loveless relationship, going through the motions and putting on airs even though the couple’s feelings for each other are dead and buried. A song like this is more about believability than anything else, and Stapleton does an excellent job communicating the narrator’s frustration with the current situation and his resignation that no matter what happens, things are going to end badly. The writing here is pretty poignant, with its images of the couple sleeping in separate rooms and only coming together to pay the bills, and the combination of singer and words move the listener to feel for and empathize with the narrator’s point of view. It’s a nice story, even if you’re forever fiddling with the volume button on your radio to hear it.

Overall, “Either Way” reminds me a lot of Eric Church’s “Round Here Buzz,” as both are well-written songs that are held back by some frustrating production problems. While I personally prefer Stapleton’s hard-charging “Parachute” to this track (and I unfortunately don’t see country radio getting behind this at all), a voice like his can cover a lot of flaws in a song, and when you just step back and let the man do his thing, you’ll probably be happy with what you hear.

Rating: 6/10. It’s certainly worth trying on for size. If you like it, I’d encourage you to explore Stapleton’s Traveller album as well.