“I learned on this record that you can’t always just show up and have it happen,” says Chris Stapleton. “Previously, I’d been real fortunate in [that] I’ve gotten to show up and have it happen.”
Stapleton was speaking to Country Now and other outlets about his fourth studio album, Starting Over, on the project’s release day last Friday (Nov. 13.) That record he describes as a “two-year process,” a stark contrast to other projects such as his 2015 debut Traveller, which took him just two weeks to make.
It wasn’t that Stapleton spent two years working continuously on an album. Rather, life kept conspiring to get in the way: At one point, he planned a trip to Alabama to record at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios — and then a power outage wiped out the town. At another point, sinus surgery changed the way his vocals sounded, forcing him to adapt and retrain his signature instrument — his voice. And then, of course, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Still, Stapleton says he always tried to take the long view on every setback.
“The older I get, the more I believe — and I try to keep this front of mind whenever things don’t seem easy or go as planned — I truly believe that everything happens for a reason and in its own time,” he points out. “To me, the kind of early universal [signs of] ‘Hey, you got some speed bumps making this record in 2018,’ well, we were not meant to finish that record in that space.”
As the next couple of years wore on, into the winter of 2019 and early 2020, the singer and his team continued to reflect, write and record. “It allowed things to come into focus. It allowed the room to breathe and [for us] to kind of examine what we were doing, in a way that we hadn’t done in the past,” he remembers of that time.
During that time, some of the subject matter that would go on to inform Starting Over’s stand-out songs was still being lived. Stapleton points to “Maggie’s Song,” a misty-eyed tribute to the life of a family dog, as an example.
“I mean, that occurred in that space,” he explains, of his dog Maggie’s death and the tribute that he wrote as he grieved her. “She was a dog that deserved a song, so I wrote a song about her the day after she died. And that song happened to carry through to me feeling led to play it live, and wind up in the studio, and we recorded it…I loved that dog very much. She was a great member of our family.”
Another thing that happened over the two years that Stapleton spent mulling over his album was the addition of Benmont Tench, a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and a keyboardist who plays Hammond B3 organ, piano and Wurlitzer on eight of Starting Over’s 14 tracks.
“I hadn’t called on him to do anything, or really had a conversation with him more than a ‘hello’ backstage at a show,” the singer reveals. “So he wouldn’t have come on to inform the record like he did if we had finished everything in 2018, because I hadn’t called him to do that.”
In fact, it was Tench’s input that wound up being the missing piece in “Old Friends,” one of two Guy Clark covers on Starting Over. Though Stapleton recorded the song early in the album-making process at the suggestion of his wife and bandmate Morgane, their version seemed destined for the cutting floor, until Tench stepped in.
“In no way, shape or form did I think I had any business singing a Guy Clark recitation song,” Stapleton admits. But Clark was an important songwriting hero and friend to both him and Morgane, and so even though he didn’t believe he could do “Old Friends” justice, he gave it a shot.
“I mean, we played the song once. And then we said, ‘I don’t know if we can do this,’ and we put it down for a year. We came back to RCA Studios a year later, and at that time we had Benmont Tench coming in to play piano on some things, and that’s when that thing got some glue on it,” he continues. “All the guys were playing great on that song. I don’t mean to diminish any of the playing or the singing, for that matter, on that song. But that was the moment, when he got done playing his part, that it was finished. And that we knew it could become part of the record, and [we could] feel okay about it, in a tribute way.”
Despite the fact that it took him longer to make Starting Over than it did to make Traveller, Stapleton knows that his new album might feel a little bit more immediate and personal to its listeners. That’s largely because he wrote the bulk of the songs after getting famous in 2015. With the obvious exception of the three cover tracks, plus a couple more older cuts that he pulled out of “my big sack of songs,” there are a number of moments on this record that fans who have been following Stapleton will recognize, because they were, in some way, there, too.
“Maggie’s Song” is like that — even if fans didn’t know Stapleton’s Maggie, so many have lost their own versions of her, and understand the powerful grief of losing a pet. There’s “Watch You Burn,” the singer’s snarling response to a 2017 mass shooting that killed 60 concertgoers and injured hundreds more at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas. Then, there’s “Nashville, TN,” a bittersweet farewell to a town that seems to change every time Stapleton sets foot outside his door.
“We had our big moment on the  CMAs that was life-altering in a visibility kind of way, so we had the tour bus showing up at our house…full of people with cameras, people driving from three, four states away….There were lots of great, positive things that happened from that moment. But the loss of privacy was not one of them, for me. I’m a fairly private person,” Stapleton says of the mindset that led him to write that song.
Even if fans can’t relate to the feeling of overnight fame, many of them — especially city-dwellers — can relate to the feeling of their town changing overnight. “They were tearing down a lot of Nashville, like the building where I met my wife, the very first place I got to witness a record being made…the publishing company where I wrote the bulk of my catalogue as a songwriter. [It] got torn down,” Stapleton continues.
“All this in the name of progress, but it felt very much like losing an old friend,” he adds. “So all these factors led to me being up in the middle of the night at 1AM, writing this song.”
In all of those ways, the moments on Starting Over feel tangible — or, as Stapleton describes it, as a little bit more of a “slice of life” than some of his previous projects. That remains true, even though the album was already written and recorded by the time the pandemic came along and shifted everything. In 2020, listeners can’t help but come to this record with different ears than they would have a year ago. But when a record is as well-made, authentic and as full of heart as Starting Over, not even a pandemic strips it of its essential meaning.
“I’ve never really looked at records necessarily as having a theme,” Stapleton asked, when asked if there’s a common denominator behind all the songs on the project. “If there is a theme, it’s hopefully a theme of truth, somewhere in it.
“And what I mean by that,” he continues after a pause, “is hopefully we’re conveying in the songs some experiences that feel real. Hopefully, people can find themselves in these songs, and in the album. If I’m looking for a theme, it’s — I don’t know — it’s that thing that binds us all together as humans.”