Chris Stapleton Arranges a Mosaic of Country Soul on Higher

The Kentucky singer/songwriter’s charming, gravelly voice and authentic roots shine through on his highly anticipated fifth LP—and his first since winning three Grammy Awards for his 2020 album Starting Over.

Music Reviews Chris Stapleton
Chris Stapleton Arranges a Mosaic of Country Soul on Higher

Driving down I-93, Chris Stapleton’s Higher filled my car, soundtracking a scenic route to New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Recognized as one of today’s most beloved country musicians, Stapleton’s versatility transcends modern country and pulls from classic heart and soul, making his sound compelling to any ear. Crafted through the collaborative efforts of Dave Cobb, Morgane Stapleton and Chris himself, Higher was recorded within the walls of Nashville’s RCA Studio A. A Kentucky native, Stapleton’s southern influences bleed through his music, yet his songs still feel like the perfect fit for a fall drive up north.

While I used to steer away from country music, Stapleton was one of the first artists to change my perspective with his 2015 hit, “Tennessee Whiskey.” My appreciation for his music and the greater country genre was solidified with his impeccable album Starting Over, which went on to win Best Country Album, Best Country Solo Performance (“You Should Probably Leave”) and Best Country Song (“Cold”) at the 2022 Grammy Awards. Since its release, Stapleton has performed the National Anthem at Super Bowl LVII and was even featured on Taylor Swift’s Red (Taylor’s Version). Starting Over proved to be a hard act to follow, making his newest release highly anticipated.

Musically, Higher maintains the same high-caliber energy as Stapleton’s previous work. His vocals are at his best while belting on tracks like “White Horse” and “The Bottom”; he explores his daunting, meticulous side on “Think I’m In Love With You,” the beat of which is reminiscent of his hit single “You Should Probably Leave.” Elsewhere, Stapleton explores drinking culture in rural areas of the United States beyond the traditional beer-guzzling, country music stereotype. On the album’s opening track, “What Am I Gonna Do,” he contemplates where his mind will take him when moves on from an ex-lover and turns to alcohol, singing “Been drinkin’ everything on that shelf / Feels like I’m killin’ myself / You’re gone and it hurts like hell / Wishin’ I was anybody else.”

This theme continues on “South Dakota,” kicking off with the lyrics “Lord this morning when I woke up / I wanted that whiskey in my coffee cup.” But rather than glorifying alcohol abuse and unhealthy coping mechanisms, Stapleton tells listeners he’s “staring down the devil, but scared to death.” Other songs on Higher arrive as a declaration of love. “It Takes a Woman” is a love letter to his wife, Morgan, who sings background vocals throughout the album. The song sheds toxic masculinity while sharing an unwavering appreciation for his spouse’s ability to bring out the best in him through her support and light.

However, lyrically Higher is more reserved than his earlier work. The album’s vocal powerhouse, “White Horse,” is paired with simplistic lyricism, rooted in impersonal clichés: “If you want a cowboy on a white horse / Riding off into the sunset / If that’s the kinda love you wanna wait for / Hold on tight girl I ain’t there yet,” Stapleton sings. It feels contradictory to the rest of the album, which represents a collection of his own stories. It is definitely a song to sing along to, though, as the vigor in Stapleton’s voice and the catchiness of the chorus makes it a good on-repeat contender.

The high energy of “White House” is maintained throughout the next through tracks, particularly “The Bottom”—which dives deeper into themes of alcoholism and heartbreak. Stapleton winds down with “Mountains of My Mind,” a soft closer where intimate vocals blend into an acoustic guitar as he grapples with his inner thoughts. Listeners are left on a cliffhanger, as Stapleton fantasizes of wandering into the unknown: “I think I’ll find a long white line, curse the world and leave it all behind […] Don’t worry I’ll be fine but I still can’t climb the mountains of my mind.”

Despite Higher’s lyrical shortcomings, Chris Stapleton still reigns high in the country genre and has delivered another admirable album. The production is exquisite and the musical elements—particularly the organ, pedal steel, piano and tambourine, in addition to his classic guitar, drums and bass setup—pulls at listeners’ auditory senses from all sides. Even for those hesitant to buy into modern country music, his talent is undeniable and his music is undoubtedly worth exploring.

Alyssa Goldberg is a writer and photographer who recently moved from New York to Boston, where she is pursuing a Master of Science in Media, Medicine, and Health at Harvard Medical School. Her work appears in Teen Vogue, Sounds of Saving, Hobart After Dark, Melodic Magazine, Pleaser Magazine and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @alyssaegoldberg or at alyssaegoldberg.com.

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