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CHRIS STAPLETON: FROM A (LISTENING) ROOM

Leave it to Chris Stapleton to wrap up his listening premiere in a plain brown bag. 

But rather than handing attendees a bottle of cheap hootch, the bags were to surrender  cell phones for the duration of hearing the songs that follow up his seismic breakthrough, Traveller.

As a groundbreaking artist who stripped away artifice, focused on performance dynamics and rode the tsunami impact of his breakout 2015 CMA Awards performance with Justin Timberlake into solid headlining, armloads of awards and hope for an industry churning out a lot of “more of the same,” the pressure on Stapleton (and producer Dave Cobb) was immense—and the curiosity about the record intense.

The buzz inside legendary RCA Studio A was palpable, in a room full of men in full beards who didn’t look like tragic hipsters yearning to be Amish. That transcendent authenticity marks the tenor of the nine-song From A Room Volume 1, the sequel to which will be dropping in December. Beyond drawing on his ragged power-singing and excruciating vocal nuance, Stapleton has distilled the influences that populated the Country Music Association and Grammy Best Country Album.

Among those taking in the music: UMG prexy Cindy Mabe, Promo Domos Royce Risser and  Damon Moberly, A&R head Brian Wright, power manager Coran Capshaw, WME/Endeavour turbo-agent Jay Williams, Opryland Entertainment’s Steve Buchanan and recently-upped Entertainment Head Sally Williams, CMT’s Leslie Fram, Spotify’s John Marks, noted historian Robert K. Oermann, ubersongwriter Craig Wiseman, Warner Bros. Publishing topper Ben VaughnWall Street Journal contributor Barry Mazor, Today Show Sunday contributor Willie Geist and Music Producer Brittany Schreiber, NPR music critic Ann Powers, Americana Music Association leader Jed Hilley and Opry announcer “Opry Dan” Rogers.

Drawing equally on the intimacy of Phases & Stages and The Sound in My Mind Willie Nelson, the ragged outlaw thunk of Billy Joe Shaver and Waylon Jennings, the early essence of Ray Charles and the blues steep of Albert and BB King, this is a stripped country that’s all sinew and soul.  Drawing on Isaac Hayes' brand of Stax for the steamy “I Still Love You,” the track throbs with desire, while the boogie shuffle of “This Morning I Smoked Them Stems” demonstrated the loose ends of a ne’er do well with the torque of some unknown band playing for dear life on a sweaty Saturday night. The showstoppers were the gospel “Broken Halos,” with its profession “we’re not meant to know the answers, they belong to the bye and bye,” the Mexican-tinged “I’ll Probably Die Before I Live All My No Good Living Down” with a prominent counterpoint vocal from wife Morgane Stapleton and the guitar/vocal recognition of done ballad “Either Way.” The latter left the room pin-drop silent, verging on stunned by the naked truth of Stapleton’s performance as a man who’s past the point of not caring about not caring.

The silence that met “Either Way” was telling. Not just because the performance warranted the close attention, but as a juxtaposition to the people who felt it was more important to network than to actually listen to the record being debuted for them. Perhaps it's mental exhaustion from too many events, too many awards shows and presentations; but perhaps it suggests that the notion of being hip and in the room has now outstripped the desire to actually hear an artist digging deep and making music that matters.

Given Stapleton’s nearly complete dominance of 2016, it’s heartening to see that he’s not succumbed to the expectations and delivered an album that expands upon—and even deepens—the return to organic sounds, pushing the songs and leaning into the emotions that set Traveller apart from the crowd.

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