Chris Stapleton – Higher (Mercury Nashville)

Following up 2020’s Grammy winning album Starting Over might be a daunting task for some artists, but for Chris Stapleton his new Higher sounds easy like a Sunday morning.

With apologies to Lionel Ritchie, Chris Stapleton sounds like he just got back on his horse and took it for another ride around the ranch when he and his crew made Higher.

Back in RCA’s legendary Studio A are his faithful rhythm section (J.T. Cure and Derek Mixon, along with co-producer Dave Cobb (who seems to be everywhere at the moment) and ringers Paul Franklin on pedal steel and Lee Pardini on organ and piano. And wife Morgane sings, plays and co-produces as well.

So, the team is pretty much the same as the one who made Starting Over, just missing a couple of Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench).  After giving Higher an initial listen, one gets the feeling that there was a ‘why fix what ain’t broke’ attitude going into it.

Up until now fans have only heard one track, the first single White Horse, a raucous, guitar-driven country-rocker that leans more toward Hendrix than Hank.

But don’t let it fool you; White Horse is hardly representative of the other 13 songs that make up Higher.

Most are either classic ‘crying in your beer’ ballads (What Am I Gonna Do), slinky blues numbers (South Dakota) or uplifting gospel-tinged country rockers (Trust).

Let’s face it, any decent country singer worth his salt needs to have a good story and they know how to tell it and Chris Stapleton in no slouch on either front.

Loving You On My Mind features a soulful Southern vocal straight outta the Tony Joe White canon while Think I’m In Love With You adds surging strings to ramp up the tension.

As the songs titles may indicate, Chris isn’t really breaking any new ground here and lines like ‘This fire I feel/this fire is real” won’t win any awards. But the secret sauce throughout this record is Paul Franklin’s pedal steel, whether it’s on the Wild Horses-like The Day I Die or swooning through the pensive title track.

In a nutshell, Higher get better the lower Chris Stapleton reaches into his soul and comes up with words and music that everyman (and woman) can relate to. Isn’t that what Country music is all about?

Marty Duda

Chris Stapleton’s Higher is released November 10th.