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Higher cements Chris Stapleton's place as one of country music's finest voices


Release date: 10 November 2023
Chris Stapleton Higher cover
09 November 2023, 09:00 Written by Liam Inscoe-Jones

Word might not have reached British shores yet, but across the pond, it’s a bonafide fact: country music rules America again.

In 2023, the Billboard charts have been steeped in straight-down-the-line country for the first time in decades. This year alone, The Voice alum Morgan Wallen hung with the likes of Bad Bunny and Miley Cyrus among the very top of Billboard 100, earning the longest-lasting Number One record of the decade so far. Oliver Anthony’s "Rich Men North of Richmond" became one of the first political anthems in recent memory to debut at Number One; a cultural moment so distinct that it was played to the candidates at the Republican Party debates. An upswell of young, country stars like Zach Bryan and Miranda Lambert are filling stadiums around the nation like it's 1971, and even stranger, more idiosyncratic country stars like Canadians Colter Wall and Orville Peck are finding fans among the hipsters.

One of the names who might have set this wave in motion is Chris Stapleton. His name isn’t household like it is in the US, but the one-time bluegrass frontman certainly traded in small bars for the giant stages when he went solo, scoring features with the likes of Ed Sheeran and Justin Timberlake and selling out a UK stadium tour from Glasgow to Dublin in 2024. Stapleton shot to fame upon the release of 2015’s Traveller, when he was already 37. That record was a commercial smash and a pretty fantastic album too; first and foremost because it placed no impediments between the album’s star and the main delight of his music: his voice.

Here’s the thing: Chris Stapleton has one of most exquisite, powerful voices of any artist working today, genre be damned. He has the giant, gravely tone to do justice to Guy Clark classics and match the great beard, but he’s capable of far more than that too. There are a great many things to like about his songs, from the crisp, immaculate production of Nashville veteran David Cobb to the exquisite songwriting of tracks like "Either Way" and "When I'm With You", but above all else is sheer, theatric performance. He can deliver a chorus like a thunderclap, and then melt into tenderness with stunning ease (just listen to "Higher" from this album alone). This provides a kind of musical baseline: a rare gift bore by the likes of Nina Simone or Marvin Gaye where pretty much all of his songs are at least somewhat compelling simply for the fact that it’s him singing them.

This is a good thing because Higher is not a hugely ambitious album. His previous record – the wonderful, Starting Over – felt like a bold statement of intent; showing the breadth of his ability from the poignant clarity of the title track to towering rock songs like "Cold". This successor is far from one note, but it does feel smaller; the first of his solo career to eschew covers entirely to laser-focus on one subject and one subject only: love, and Chris, for sure, is in it.

For its detractors, country music is too predictable to bother with: filled with drink, heartbreak and the Lord. And sure, there’s enough drink on the first two songs of Higher to make a distillery lick their lips, but there’s very little God: instead Stapleton channels all of that devotion into his girl. The album is built around songs like "It Takes A Woman" and "Trust" supple, delicate expressions of absolute commitment which frame romantic love as a spiritual need, often sung with his actual wife – singer Maggie Stapleton – as backing.

If other modern country giants like Sam Hunt fill their music with concessions to radio pop, then Stapleton’s sound is of a far more classic mould. His songs feel like you’re sitting in the room as the band plays them, textured by crisp nylon strings and warm percussion. Sometimes, among the pedal-steel of "Weight of Your World", it’s pure country, but Stapleton goes to other places: the luscious instrumentation of "Loving You On My Mind" more befitting of Motown than Nashville.

Stapleton is capable of cutting a classic sound from across decades of American pop: a little Smokey here, a little Springsteen there. On "White Horse" he goes full on outlaw-rock (if lyrics like “If you want a cowboy on a white horse / Riding off into the sunset” don’t prove his voice can sell just about anything, then nothing will). There are a couple of songs on here – like the dull "Crosswind" – which play it too safe, but for Stapleton, a more succinct record is no bad thing because his talent is pretty direct in the first place. In short, as the country scene gets more crowded, Stapleton remains its finest voice.

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