Nashville’s Studio A opened for business in 1965. Its state-of-the-art facilities made it an iconic destination for country musicians, with the likes of Chet Akins, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Charley Pride and many others recording there.
So it’s no surprise, really, that one of today’s rising country stars, Chris Stapleton, would choose to record his second album, From A Room: Volume 1, in its hallowed (and recently renovated) halls.
Room A follows his enormously successful solo debut, 2015’s Traveller, and it shares much of that album’s musical DNA. Stapleton still sounds older than his 39 years—like, centuries older. (His gravely voice sounds at times like the sonic embodiment of the phrase world weary.) Eight brief, lyrically spare tracks add a bigger dose of folk, blues and southern rock to the country mix this time around, with Stapleton spinning sad stories of relational estrangment, distance and dissolution, punctuated by occasional moments of hope and perspective.
“Broken Halos” ponders the mystery of loss and death, suggesting that we’ll only find answers to some questions in the hereafter: “Don’t go looking for the reasons/Don’t go asking Jesus why/We’re not meant to know the answers/They belong to the by and by.” The song speaks (seemingly literally) of angels: “Angels come down from the heavens/Just to help us on our way.” And those beings appear to be quite busy in their work: “Come to teach us, then they leave us/And they find some other soul to save.” Stapleton then metaphorically describes those who suffer and die as people with “broken halos” who have “folded wings that used to fly.”
“Second to Know” exhorts an enthusiastic partner in a flourishing new romance, “Don’t put my love on your back burner/Never let anything that hot get cold.” Later, he adds, “Rather die before I treat you bad/All I ask from you/Is to treat me the same way, too/’Cause I don’t want to lose this thing we have.”
On “Up to No Good Livin’,” a reformed prodigal vents his frustration that his significant other still doesn’t trust him: “I’ve finally changed from that someone I was/To somebody I am/But she finds it hard to believe that she’s turned me around.” We also hear, “I ain’t been guilty of nothing/But being the man she deserves.” “I Was Wrong” offers an apology for the ways a man has mistreated someone and asks her to reconsider her decision to leave him. Likewise, “Without Your Love” practically begs a departed ex to return (“Baby, please come back to me”).
“Either Way,” a song about an emotionally empty relationship, rightly observes that people can only treat each other terribly for so long before it does irreparable harm: “I used to cry and stay up nights/ … But hearts can only do that so long.”
The bluesy lament “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” agonizes over a lover’s unexpected exit one morning. Stapleton tries (to no avail, apparently) to sweet-talk the woman into staying, saying, “Your love makes my life complete,” then apologizes for mistakes apparently made: “And excuse me for looking/Like I just lost my best friend.”
“Death Row” recounts a condemned man’s final thoughts. He says he’s made peace with Jesus (“Don’t want no preacher man to come around/ … Already told Jesus everything I know”), and he asks someone to comfort his mother and girlfriend (“When it’s time for my last request/Tell my mama that I did my best/Tell my baby that I love her so”).
“Last Thing I need, First Thing This Morning” says that a woman who left her man went out drinking the night before. “Either Way” is a grim song about a relationship drained of vitality. Stapleton narrates, “We go to work, we go to church/We fake the perfect life/I’m past the point of giving d–ns/And all my tears are cried.” In place of that pain, he’s now surrendered to numb hopelessness: “We can just go on like this/Say the word, we’ll call it quits/Baby you can go or you can stay/But I won’t love you either way.”
On “Them Stems,” a guy trying to deaden the pain of a breakup smokes so much marijuana (“This morning I smoked them stems/ … I’m in a bad, bad way again”) that he burns through his stash. That prompts him to seek out a fellow toker for more, only to find out his friend’s pot supply has gone up in smoke, too (“I called up this buddy of mine/ … I was hoping I could bum a toke off of him/But this morning he smoked them stems”).
“I Was Wrong” includes some mildly suggestive lyrics: “What I wouldn’t give to be your lover again/All I want to do is touch your skin.” “Up to No Good Livin'” says of a man’s past partying exploits, “I used to drink like a fish.” The track also uses the s-word twice.
Death—literal and metaphorical—turns up frequently on From A Room: Volume 1. Broken and suffering people pass away. Relationships perish all over the place. And the album ends with the meditations of a man on death row, a somber conclusion to a mostly mournful album. Just two songs, really, depict relationships that haven’t ended badly. But even in these, Stapleton expresses insecurity about the future.
Concrete content concerns include an entire song about getting stoned, two uses of the s-word, winks at drinking too much and some briefly sensual lyrics.
That said, unlike some country albums, the overriding vibe of From A Room: Volume 1 isn’t rebellion or hedonism. Rather, it’s a haunting, inescapable melancholy as romances just keep failing in these eight songs. Desperation and despair linger in the lyrical air on an album that doesn’t focus as much upon being bad is it does feeling sad.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.