Chris Stapleton’s 2015 solo debut Traveller was a breath of fresh air in country music. Released at the peak of bro country’s popularity, the album was a welcome return to craft-based musicianship and harkened back to a more traditional country sound, something fans then found only on the fringes of the genre.
And then, of course, there was that voice. While Stapleton developed a cult following as part of the bluegrass group the SteelDrivers, new fans quickly hopped aboard the bandwagon after hearing his soulful take on the country classic “Tennessee Whiskey,” or the smoldering ballad “Fire Away.” Since then, Stapleton has become a juggernaut of the genre, winning dozens of awards and paving the way for younger like-minded artists like Luke Combs and Jelly Roll.
On his fifth album, Higher, which is out on Nov. 10, Stapleton takes something of an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. Once again, he enlists frequent collaborator Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, John Prine) to co-produce the LP, this time alongside him and his wife, singer-songwriter Morgane Stapleton. He also taps a handful of Music Row’s finest players to join the proceedings, including pedal steel legend Paul Franklin (George Strait, Vince Gill) and next-gen piano/organ whiz Lee Pardini (Dawes, Roger Waters), with Stapleton handling acoustic, electric and slide guitars. That familiar setup doesn’t mean the record is a re-tread of familiar territory, though, as Stapleton is looser, bolder and surer of himself, a recipe making this his best project yet.
Higher opens with “What Am I Gonna Do,” a Miranda Lambert co-write that makes you wish the pair worked together more often. Gently rootsy production from Cobb serves as a lush bed for their tale of romantic regret, which Stapleton delivers with a balance of bruised yearning and subtle resignation. “South Dakota” could be a long-lost Allman Brothers Band b-side, with its swampy groove and Stapleton’s dusky drawl underscoring the “trouble [that] ain’t hard to find” at the heart of the track. Stapleton’s fretwork on “South Dakota” is especially tasty, too, as he favors drawn-out bends and quick, searing flourishes over virtuosic pyrotechnics.
Other highlights on Higher include the title track, a song Stapleton wrote by himself and one of the album’s finest vocal moments. Stapleton is a master of dynamics, knowing when to pull back and when to let it rip, as when his quietly delivered verses give way to the emotional falsetto at the track’s chorus. On “White Horse,” co-written with Dan Wilson (Adele, Taylor Swift) and the record’s first single, Stapleton and Cobb let the dramatic tension build to an arena-worthy crescendo, particularly as the song goes into double-time at its bridge, a move recalling Stapleton’s contemporary Jason Isbell.
“Loving You on My Mind” is another high point, with Stapleton exploring his sexier side on a seductive tune made all the more electric with Morgane’s backing harmonies. And “Crosswind” is a worthy entry into the pantheon of country’s trucking songs, with its ominous imagery (“Trying to keep all the rubber on 65 / Might not make it out alive”) reminiscent of the fearful narrator of Johnny Cash’s “Monteagle Mountain.”
Stapleton saves his rawest moment for the album’s closing track “Mountains of My Mind,” another solo write that he performs with just an acoustic guitar. The searching lyrics and introspective bent of the track are especially potent, as he grapples with “a revelation that [he] might never know” with a quietly emotive vocal, worrying he “can’t climb the mountains of [his] mind.” Like its predecessor, the wildly acclaimed 2020 album Starting Over, Higher finds Stapleton once again raising his bar. How lucky that we get to watch him continue to climb.