In 1928, Jimmie Rodgers recorded a song called "T for Texas." It was talking blues, but its use of yodelling, how it ran through the banjo, and its train themes laid the foundation for what country music would become — if it didn't already count as country. Almost 50 years later, Tompall Glaser would release a version of the song on Wanted! The Outlaws, a compilation featuring Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and others that would cement outlaw country as a genre.
Wanted! is a clear forebear to Chris Stapleton's new record, From a Room: Volume 1; its mythos, its aesthetic, how it's written and how it sounds all inform Stapleton's work. But if Glaser's cover of Rodgers suggested decades of careful reading, with enough confidence to expand on it, From a Room doesn't quite show the same ability to innovate. In fact, if someone told me Stapleton's album was Glaser attempting to return to basics, recorded in the late 1970s, I might believe them.
That said, there's nothing wrong with that aesthetic. Stapleton's writing is taut and often moving, his guitar playing strong and his voice gruff enough to add variety to quite intricate productions. Room even includes a very funny future stoner anthem ("Them Stems").
But there's something missing here. It's not that I don't like the album (I do), or the album didn't have hooks (it does), but Glaser's version of Rodgers sounds very far away from the original, and Stapleton's cover of Willie Nelson's "Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning" sounds exactly like Willie Nelson. Stapleton does what he does well, but the lack of risks here — From a Room is basically the ideal of pure country — means there isn't a ton of payoff, either.
The genre is wide, but Stapleton's Room is so narrow and old-fashioned that, despite its quality songwriting, it feels stifling at times. (Universal)