Chris Stapleton Wrestles with Love and Loss, Tragedy and Truth on ‘Starting Over’

One of the most touching songs on the project is one about his old four-legged friend, Maggie.

Written by Deborah Evans Price
Chris Stapleton Wrestles with Love and Loss, Tragedy and Truth on ‘Starting Over’
Chris Stapleton; Photo credit: Becky Fluke

Chris Stapleton is a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and he’s not afraid to take his time creating music. Though his debut album Traveller was recorded and mixed in just two weeks, his new album Starting Over took much longer, and he’s fine with that.

“The older I get, the more that I believe—and I try to keep this in front of mind whenever things don’t seem easy or go as planned—I truly believe that everything happens for a reason and in it’s own time,” Stapleton said in a Zoom call with Nashville journalists. He acknowledges there were “some speed bumps making this record in 2018. We were meant to not finish that record in that space and have that time to write and reflect and let the record come into focus a little bit more and finish it up in the winter of 2019 and early this year. So it allowed things come into focus and it allowed room to breathe and kind of examine what we were doing in a way that we haven’t done in the past.”

Chris Stapleton; Cover art courtesy of UMG Nashville

He admits the approach in recording his fourth studio album, Starting Over, was much different than his 2015 breakthrough album Traveller. “Traveller we made in a week. We recorded all those songs in a week and mixed it the next week. It was a two-week process,” says Stapleton, who again worked with producer Dave Cobb on his new album. “This was a two-year process, now not a constant two-year process, but it happened over that period of time. So I don’t look at those things as these negative things. I look at them as it was supposed to happen and it’s hard to do that in the moment, but I can always I feel like find my way there when I get enough space between me and whatever thing felt not how you wanted it to go.”

Taking his time resulted in a deeply personal album that covers a variety of emotional territory from losing his beloved dog in “Maggie’s Song” to the devastating 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas which he sings about in the blistering “Watch you Burn.” The 14-song collection also features the poignant love song “Joy of My Life” and closes with the acerbic “Nashville, TN.”

“There are three covers on the record that are older songs. A few songs I pulled from my big sack of songs,” he says, “but a lot of the songs on this record kind of happened in the space of making the record. Now, granted that process happened between 2018 and early 2020, so there’s a two plus year period there that a lot could happen. In that sense, it’s probably more of a slice of life than the previous records that you get this kind of in the moment feeling even if the moment that we’re in now was very different when this was recorded.”

One of the toughest for him to do was “Maggie’s Song,” and he admits he got choked up recording it. “She deserved a tribute of a song. Whether or not I did her justice in the song I don’t know, but she was a dog that deserved a song,” he says of the beloved family pet he had for 14 years before she passed. “I wrote a song the day after she died and that song happened to carry through to me feeling like playing it live. We wound up in the studio and recorded it and now it lives in the world to make people more sad than they deserve to be in a year that we don’t need much of that, but I loved that dog very much and she was a great member of the family.”

The title track is a song Stapleton co-wrote with his former SteelDrivers bandmate Mike Henderson. “As with most of the songs that Mike and I have written or probably nearly all of them, I show up at his house about 8 o’clock,” Stapleton recalls. “He has a little room off his house that’s not connected to his house that’s made for making noise and playing pool and writing songs. So I show up over there about 8 o’clock in the evening and sit down and have a cocktail and talk about life. In this particular conversation, I think when I walked in he was kind of thinking about how all of us in life there are times and things that happen in our lives. Everybody goes through this where either by volunteering or by circumstance, you have to kind of start over. He was thinking a lot about that.”

The conversation also turned to their wives and their appreciation for the women they married. “We both have really good wives,” Stapleton shares. “So we were talking about our wives a little bit and how kind of having that partner and that somebody to walk through life with in that way made those times hopeful and not desperate. So in that sense I think and hope that there is an overtone of hope in the song more than there is an overtone of the fear of the unknown. I like to listen to that song in that context and maybe it means something even different now. I don’t know.”

Stapleton covers two Guy Clark songs—“Worry B Gone,” which Clark co-wrote with Lee Roy Parnell and Gary Nicholson and “Old Friends,” a solo composition. “My wife, who is so brilliant at suggesting things song wise, that is one she wanted me to try,” he says.  “No way shape or form did I think I had any business singing a Guy Clark recitation song, but I think it’s such a wonderful song. Guy Clark meant a great deal to me, and to my wife, in particular, as a songwriter and as a friend that we felt that we should include some of his music or at least attempt to play it. Those were our versions of how those songs would go, but I would encourage people to listen to Guy do his versions because those are the real ones in my mind.”

The album concludes with “Nashville, TN,” which explores the Kentucky native’s complicated relationship with fame and the changing face of Nashville. “That’s a song I wrote in 2015. We had our big kind of moment on the CMAs that was kind of life altering in a visibility kind of way,” he says of performing with Justin Timberlake on the 2015 CMA Awards. “We had the tour bus showing up at our house. We lived on a very normal street. A tour bus [started] coming by twice a day full of people with cameras and had people driving from three or four states away just looking up your address. All of a sudden, they are in your driveway while you are trying to play ball with your kids.  Those kinds of things. I was 38 when all of that started happening and there were lots of great positive things that happened from that moment, but the loss of privacy was not one of them. I’m a fairly private person, so we rented a house down the street and put the other house up for sale and didn’t know where we were going.

“In the midst of all of that,” Stapleton continues, “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, that studio was torn down. The publishing company where I wrote the bulk of my catalog as a songwriter got torn down. All of this in the name of progress but it felt very much like losing an old friend in a way, so all those factors led to me being up in the middle of the night at 1am writing a song. The choruses were static in that they were all the same until we got into the record process and that’s when my wife suggested that we change the final chorus to ‘you’re not who you used to be.’ That’s her line and it really kind of was a nice turn on the song, but also not angry but very poignant and final. So that’s how that song came to be.”

When someone on the Zoom call asks Stapleton about his influence on modern country music, he demures from accepting any credit. “I can do me and if that has some kind of overarching influence on country music, well, maybe that’s good or maybe it’s not,” he says. “I think people would argue both, but I do love country music very much and I do respect country music very much. I’m not trying to go make an EDM record or something anytime in the near future. Nothing against EDM records. I think they are perfectly fine, but that’s not what I do. I’m not trying to completely evolve into something that feels forced at all for me. So whatever is next for us will be hopefully, I don’t want to say more of the same, but following a path that is seems like the right thing to do and it’s hard to know what that is.” Stapleton does hope he’s opened doors for other artists who might be a little left of center to find acceptance. “If there is an influence that I have on country music, maybe it’s that everybody doesn’t have to look one way or sound one way,” he notes. “Maybe if my influence is ‘there’s not one way to do something musically,’ I think maybe that’s a good influence to have. If I could have that influence, I think that would be positive and it gives someone a real good opportunity to do something that is uniquely them, and I think it would be a beautiful thing…I got to make Traveller on the shoulders of someone else’s large commercial success that allowed Universal to take a chance on me in. That was a real opportunity for me to make records and I can’t point to exactly who the huge commercial success was that paid for my records indirectly, maybe Shania Twain or somebody like that. It’s important. So if I can have that kind of success—not a Shania Twain level success. We don’t get those anymore—but if I could have enough success that my music led the label I was on to take chances on left of center people, that would be the best influence I could possibly have on music.”