Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Chris Stapleton Album | Lefsetz Letter

Sounds best with no distractions.

But we live in a distracted world. One in which concertgoers can’t get off their mobiles, where we need a hit of adrenaline 24/7, otherwise we become depressed, feel like we’re falling behind. But what if someone made a record for a different time, when we lived life much more slowly, when we paid attention!

In case you haven’t been, paying attention, that is, Chris Stapleton is the number one hero in Nashville. Because he did it his way. He’s old and experienced and overweight and that does not seem to bother him whatsoever. He’s just walking into the wilderness, doing it his own way. Wowing people, especially his fellow artists, who are forced to cowrite and make radio-friendly music or risk obsolescence. He not on the hit parade does not matter. But is this true?

Please, let’s separate the wheat from the chaff. I hate to even stoop down and say this, but most people are wannabes, even if they believe in themselves. In the old days they never would have gotten a deal, never would have been heard, and that’s a good thing. Today they’re in our face, spamming us all the while, saying THEY’RE DOING IT EXACTLY LIKE STAPLETON!

Only they’re not. They’re not aged journeymen with hit songs under their belt who lived the life of AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll).” And what’s amazing is Stapleton’s new album, “From A Room,” is not rock and roll. It’s like he’s had the radio turned off for a decade, maybe longer, when country music evolved into the rock of the seventies. That’s right, if you like country because it’s the closest thing to classic rock, you’re not gonna like “From A Room.” It sounds like it was made in the south decades back, all languid and loose, it’s all the stuff you hated…

Before you began to hate rap music.

Rap made its bones on its honesty. Who knew it would be so lucrative? But now you can’t leave the money out of the equation. It’s a motivator and an influencer. And rap is filled with braggadocio, you know the story if not the music, but Chris Stapleton is nearly mute.

And pop music is a producer’s medium. No one is as big a star as Max Martin, not Katy Perry, Lorde or even Harry Styles. It’s Martin who lasts. But what is fascinating is he lasts because he keeps changing his sound, which is astounding when you consider all the legendary producers in the rearview mirror, who could not make the transition to modernity, like Roy Thomas Baker and Mike Chapman, never mind Stock, Aitkin & Waterman. But if you read the Martin interview you’ll see that he’s playing by modern rules, a world wherein attention is precious and you’ve got to grab the listener right away, otherwise they’ll be on to something else.

But either you give “From A Room” your attention or you ignore it. There’s no flash, no bombs, few obvious hooks, but if you turn off your phone and do nothing else, it resonates.

Now in the old days you’d buy a record unheard, except for maybe the single, you’d drop the needle and get a first impression. Hopefully a track or two would pop out, which would be hooks for further listening, to bring you into the album.

And I found two of those cuts on “From A Room,” but mostly I felt this was a guy cutting a record who didn’t give a rat’s ass what I thought, that this was a musician following his muse not worrying about the chart, only himself and his peers. That’s right, first and foremost Chris Stapleton is a musician, and we haven’t had that spirit here in quite a long time.

The first of those two cuts is “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning.” Which you’ll notice is so SLOW! Who would risk this? Right after the opening initial single, “Broken Halos.” And “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” is a 35 year old Willie Nelson hit. Don’t acts do covers to fill out LPs, for obvious radio play? But this rendition fits neither of those paradigms, but it does set your mind a’thinking. Which is what music used to do, when it was everything.

And the best cut on “From A Room” is the final one, entitled “Death Row,” just when you think you’ve digested the message, the gestalt, like “Moonlight Mile” at the end of “Sticky Fingers,” Stapleton goes all quiet, all touch-feely, and  you are enraptured.

Well up here’s the window sitting way up high
I can’t look up enough to see the sky
There ain’t no good light here below
Death row

This is not that celebrity movie starring Sean Penn, nobody cares about this inmate, nobody cares about you, you’re faceless, most of us are, and that’s why “Death Row” is so haunting, you believe if not for fate, you could be there too.

And there’s a forty five second intro, sans explosions, just a groove, enough to lay your body and mind within before Chris starts to sing.

And when he does…

He reminds me of Lowell George, who didn’t have the best voice, and neither does Stapleton, but both have a way of singing that’s completely unique that touches you, evidences humanity, you know there’s someone home.

And there’s so little on the track. Almost nothing beyond Chris and occasional guitar accents, but the axe never starts to wail, this definitely does not go to 11. As a matter of fact, the break at the end is even less dramatic than the playing in the verses, as if the lead were wiped off, and then the whole thing walks down a country road and fades out.


It’s like Stapleton heard none of the hype, wasn’t on all those TV shows, is uninfluenced by the pressure, to have another hit, to belong.

And I’m not sure “From A Room” will be a big hit. But I’m positively stunned the number one star in Nashville has gone down this path. As if to say I’m a musician, not a money machine, a creator, not a star, if I can’t do it my way, if I can’t explore, I don’t want to do it at all.

But that’s what happens when you’re 39 instead of 19. You know life is full of ups and downs, and if you don’t do it your way you’ll end up regretting it.

I’m not sure people can slow down enough for “From A Room.”

I don’t know if the music industry knows how to sell something based on music as opposed to beats and statistics.

But if you care, turn off the lights, tune out the noise, lay back and check this out. Tell me what you think. Does it set your mind free, do you think to way back when, when you lived to buy albums and discover them, go to the show not for the fireworks but for the tunes?

I’m not predicting huge commercial success for “From A Room.” I don’t hear that obvious radio track that ensures that.

But it’s an artistic triumph. Because of the RISK!

“Death Row”-


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