Martin Ruby (from the album Heaven Get Behind Me available on WhistlePig Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
Some lives are less straight-forward than others. As we approach the tail-end of a very strange year, a time when usually we would be collectively coasting peacefully towards a holiday season, it seems that the music coming my way grows more and more interesting. None could be more intriguing than Martin Ruby's debut album Heaven Get Behind Me. Martin Ruby, it turns out, is not a person but a band, lead by multi-disciplinary creative Marco North, here credited as supplying vocals, 6 and 12-string acoustic guitars, electric guitars, dobro, banjola, saxophone, harmonica, cloud chamber bowls, calliope, pump organ and foot-stomps.
Born in New York, North is known for his stories, poems, plays, film-work (including shots for John Lennon and Yoko Ono), and his interviews with the likes of David Bowie and Liza Minelli. He lectured at New York University and The School of Visual Arts and played saxophone in an ‘unsigned surf punk band’. This, it seems, it just half the story. When North's daughter, at the age of two, was kidnapped by her mother and taken to Moscow, a desperate North followed. For thirteen years since he has lived in Moscow, struggling, it seems, for a long time against the system to raise and care for his child. Now happily remarried (still residing in Russia), a close brush with death inspired North to write and record Heaven Get Behind Me, at a time when his own mortality was at risk.
That's some backstory, and a mind-boggling set-up for an album which name-checks Fellini, features a striking cover reminiscent of René Magritte and was recorded at home utilizing, amongst other instruments, a 100-year old parlour guitar and an 1887 Pollman banjola. “Fellini Was Dying”, the album's first track, lurches like a weary drunk, yet one who has not altogether let go of the sweetness of life. North's acoustic guitar is as rough-edged as his voice, and just as affecting. Against a backdrop of street sounds, the song staggers with pathos and pain. Crucially, it is also full of beauty, both in the ringing, vibrating strings and in North's emotional delivery. It is a simple, yet clever composition, delivered with no little skill.
“Long Tall Man” is sparkling, circling Americana, with twanging guitar hovering like a vulture; a deep, dusty confessional ballad, punctuated by slide guitar, ‘Burning nothing but bad gasoline’ sings North. The power lies in the music's almost unbearable rawness. North's poetry is hard-edged and cynical, compassionate and true; uniquely American in tone. ‘She reads the letters, decides which to let through’, intones North on “The Letter Reader”, a sparsely-adorned meditation, each note replete with longing and fear. The album's most poignant moment comes on “Sebastopol,” when North's daughter Eve can be heard, harmonizing with her father.
“Stone Blind Rain” drips with pathos. Harmonica and cloud chamber bowls lend delicate, flashing adornment. The wonder, with this album, is that everything feels intensely ‘real’. There is no artifice here, only art, and North's art is immediately connecting and approachable, harking back to the ages-old tradition of Folk music: music for 'folk', music for us all. ‘They say it' a good day to die’ sings North and there is no melodrama here, merely humanity. (by Chris Wheatley)
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Songhoy Blues (from the album Optimisme available on Fat Possum Records)
They come out swinging for the fences, connect, and knock it out of the park. Labeled a ‘desert Blues Rock band’, Timbuktu’s Songhoy Blues will at times keep the trad Blues portion in their back pocket when emphasizing Blues Rock and exploring sonic desert psychedelics. On Optimisme, any base of traditional Blues is buried but never forgotten, the Rock force of Songhoy Blues carries a Stooges-charge dirty Blues along with traditional West African rhythms forging into a mind-expanding trance. A quick drum roll gives way to a fist pumping, Garage Punk riff that drives the album opener in “Badala”, a cut that has a quick stadium chant that sets a raw tone.
Tracks like “Assadja”, “Gabi”, and “Barre” dig into traditional West African rhythms while reminding that Songhoy Blues is a Blues Rock band as guitars deliver repetitive melodies, heavy with psychedelic rhythms. “Fey Fey” opens up with a melodic blast that nods to Mahavishnu Orchestra while “Por Toi” plays as a world-ballad before dropping into a pulsing dance cut ripe for the dancefloor. ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to be happy, keep fighting today’ is the motivational phrase within the only cut sung in English, and the record wrapping with the slowed down “Kouma”. Optimisme is a Rock’n’Roll package with a World Music flair busting with groove, glorious in raw underproduction. Songhoy Blues are a perfect syncing of international flair who play like your life depends on Blues Rock music for air.
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My Darling Clementine (from the album Country Darkness available on Fretstore Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
The premise behind Country Darkness, the new, and fifth, album from My Darling Clementine, certainly grips the imagination. Husband-and-wife team Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish, who comprise the band, set out to explore the back catalogue of Elvis Costello in order to shine a light on his lesser-celebrated songs. This is no simple covers-record, however. My Darling Clementine have chosen to highlight works which they believe showcase the darker, Outlaw Country side of Costello, bringing out themes of heartbreaking Folk and Gothic sensibilities in the grand Americana tradition.
The duo seem perfectly suited to such a task. King has a long and respectable resume in the Alt Country world, including leadership of The Good Sons, collaborations with Townes Van Zandt, and globetrotting shows alongside Nick Cave, Arlo Guthrie and others. Dalgleish is no less an intriguing proposition; a playwright, pianist, dancer and singer of rare quality. Her backstory, indeed, reads like an adventure novel. Lending further credence to Country Darkness is the presence of Rock 'N Roll Hall-of-Famer Steve Nieve, a sideman and integral part of Elvis Costello's sound since 1977. For this project, Nieve contributed not only his considerable keyboard talent, but also aided in the selection and arrangement of the songs. Backing is provided by Colin Elliott (bass), Shez Sheridan (guitars), Dean Beresford (drums) and horn-players Matt Holland and Martin Winning.
The opening track reaches back to the not-so-distant past, with a re-imagining of “Either Side of the Same Town” from Costello's 2004 album, The Delivery Man. It's an assured start. The ying/yang of King's assured, rough-edged vocals and Dalgleish's quavering sweetness works well. Both are possessed of a charming, naïve quality. The song feels somehow both lighter and darker than the original. It floats nicely, yet the sky through which it drifts is dense with dark clouds. Beautiful keys and guitar; the lilting backbeat; My Darling Clementine's harmonizing; the components make for a winning combination. As the track drifts on, you find yourself able to put Costello's voice from your mind and immerse yourself into a familiar, yet different world. This, it transpires, is remarkably true for each of the twelve songs presented here.
“I'll Wear it Proudly”, from 1986’s King of America, glitters with a dust-and-diamonds Nashville sheen, delicate, descending arpeggios and subtle, finger-picked guitar. “Why Can't a Man Stand Alone” sparkles through a sparsely-adorned opening, largely driven by acoustic guitar, before beautiful, subtle horns, and percussion join the show. It feels like a classic 70’s Stevie Wonder take, eliciting a remarkable softness and delicacy. “The Crooked Line” takes things up-tempo, scattered with instantly-recognizable Nieve vamps and rolls, strangely reversing the formula from the original version's County-fiddle feel to something approaching a 'traditional' Costello sound. As with every track on this album, it is accomplished with some aplomb. Perhaps the finest compliment I can give “Powerless”, the thirteenth, and final, song, an original composition from King and Dalgleish, is that it fits seamlessly amongst the others.
It is always difficult to foresee how fans will react to such a work. That Steve Nieve features so heavily should serve to assuage such fears. In the final analysis, there is no doubt that My Darling Clementine are genuine in their respect for and admiration of Costello. They are also possessed of the talent and taste to bring something new to the table. Apart from anything else, Country Darkness serves to remind us of the strength and breadth of Costello's song-writing. My Darling Clementine can be justifiably proud of that. My only quibble lies with the album's title. There is darkness here, surely, both in the lyrics and arrangements (on certain tracks more than others). Always, however, the sheer exuberance of Costello's love for song can't help but shine through. (by Chris Wheatley)
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My Politic (from the album Short Sighted People In Power available as a self-release) (by Joe Burcaw)
It’s extremely difficult listening to My Politic’s latest album without wanting to march up to the front gate of The White House with bull horn in one hand and a 12-gauge shotgun in the other cocked and loaded. True rebel rousers are the songwriting team of Kaston Guffey and Nick Pankey, hailing from a little town in Missouri called Ozark. Call me crazy, but I get a funny feeling these lads have an issue with President Orange Face and the two-party system controlling this so-called land of the free. I cannot blame them because these are troubled times and change is needed for progression. Protest songs can provide a tricky avenue to navigate, My Politic succeed in getting their point across and having no regrets whatsoever in the process. I appreciate that type of conviction when it comes to lyrical content, and the sentiment of being a straight shooter. ‘Fuck the president, fuck the GOP, fuck the folks at Fox News spreading lies on TV’. ‘It ain’t both sides it’s one side, it’s your side, it’s the wrong side’. Sometimes (and especially in this instance) F-bombs are required when making a statement. “Wrong Side” is an example of young angst ripping the establishment a new one for creating a monster full of lies and deception, at least that is my interpretation. I hear hints of Don McLean in the vocal delivery, spitting out multitudes of verbal spat to fit within each bar concisely. Forget “American Pie” people ‘cos this song has chutzpah! “Talkin RNC Blues” takes me back to the early 80’s when Bruce Springsteen released his stripped-down classic Nebraska. The arpeggiated chords underneath the spoken vocal line creates a tension and release that ebbs and flows beautifully. It just proves how powerful and important the lyrical delivery can be when the content is of a serious matter. Strip away the Vox and you have your typical laidback Country feel, bring the Vox back in and the overall tone changes significantly. True artistry at its best, that really impressed me with their songwriting. My favorite song out of the bunch was “Short Sighted People In Power”. I think this is because Guffy was reaching for his notes in the upper register, and getting close to peaking outside of his vocal range. I really dug his efforts in just going for it and seeing what happens, which was magic! ‘And the drug company’s selling us poison turned a whole generation into addicts for what? So they can stack up their profits it’s never enough......’. Another great line singling out “Big Pharma” for their exploits and intentional drugging of Americans. If Glen Phillips ever left Toad The Wet Sprocket he would find a comfortable home within My Politic, just my two cents, of course. Considering this album was all recorded through Garage Band is quite impressive, it sounds crisp, clear and contemporary. They wanted to create an ‘historical time capsule’, hyper-focused on this unique and extremely troubling moment in America. Great job gents and keep doing what you’re doing, we need more folks like you to take a stand and speak your truth!
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Front Country (from the album Impossible World available on Antifragile Music)
(by Joe Burcaw)
I must confess, I have been really digging the trio format as of late. I admire musicians who are multi-instrumentalists as a way of compensating for lack of physical bodies and appendages. Groups such as The Police, Rush, and King’s X have pushed the boundaries over their careers, creating a huge wall of sound with only three people steering the boat. Let me introduce Front Country, a Roots/Pop outfit originating from the San Francisco Bay Area (now calling Music City home) have released their monumental masterpiece third album, Impossible World. Full disclosure, I don’t use the phrase ‘monumental masterpiece’ lightly, this brilliant piece of work grabs you from the first utter soaring out of Melody Walker’s mouth. “How Can You Sing” is a prime example of the power and control Walker exudes as a lead vocalist. I watched an acoustic version of the song on Facebook and immediately went to a place of solace, creating images within my mind of peaceful landscapes and golden plains of existence where pain and suffering do not exist.
This stripped-down version proves that a killer ‘hook’ will enhance any composition no matter what genre it may be performed in. Adam Roszkiewicz’s simplistic mandolin line counters the vocals effortlessly, and it is that intentional (or non-intentional) decision to play less that makes so much more of an impact throughout the song. Jacob Groopman added an interesting synth pad with what looked like a midi keyboard, very subtle yet impactful nonetheless. “Miracle” is another stand-out track that could have been released in the synth heavy era of the 80’s, yet it sounds relevant and fresh in contemporary times. Walker’s stacked backing vocals really showcase her ability to command the harmony without getting in the way of the other instruments. I couldn’t help but think of Bonnie Raitt and Carly Rae Jepsen when trying to pin point vocal influences on this one, I am seriously in love with this woman’s voice! A quick sidenote, the eight-bar atmospheric guitar effect reminded me of former Duran Duran guitarist, Warren Cuccurullo and his crafty way of pushing the envelope with FX pedals. It was a clever breakdown that I went back to and put on repeat quite often. “Amerikan Dream’s” lyrical content emphasizes that situations in ‘the mother land’ aren’t as great as they seem to be, ‘working in a warehouse with no AC, you’re free to believe in the Amerikan Dream’. ‘The shadow in the mirror our own hypocrisy, we’re free to believe in the Amerikan Dream’. ‘When are we gonna wake up and when are we gonna see, we’re afraid to leave the Amerikan Dream’. Words of truth that a better life exists out there, but sometimes we feel stuck by the system that is trying to keep us down, at least that is what I perceived when listening to the words. It’s a great up-tempo number that really pushes the pulse with the bass dropping quarter-note stabs on the downbeat of the kick drum. The arpeggiated banjo drives the feel too, very cool things happening all over this track. I stand firm with a fist in the air supporting Front Country, and highly recommend checking them out on their social media platforms and official website. Looking forward to seeing them live if they ever tour up in the New England area, once life normalizes again! (by Joe Burcaw)
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Ida Mae (from the E.P. Raining for You available on Vow Road Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Genre descriptors like Delta Blues and Acoustic Roots are being thrown at musicians Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean Ward, collectively known as Ida Mae. The mantle sells the British duo a tad short; as wonderful as the styles they emulate, Ida Mae bubble with talent, and the Turpin/Ward combo would be crazy to not want to be part of that collection yet there is musically more to Ida Mae on their latest E.P. Raining for You than Blues and Roots music.
The styles they wear are obvious within Raining for You, living amongst a put together puzzle that also dashes out Psychedelic and Indie Rock along with hazy and lazy, slacker Folk. “Deep River” is an aggressive opener that gives the duo a Blues vibe, a cut where layered rhythms and instrumentation support a gutsy and gritty Indie Blues guitar solo laid out by guest Marcus King. A lonesome slide guitar introduces “Raining for You”, Ida Mae’s vocals beginning with a hush before growing into a beautiful, rough around the edges, and urgent ache.
“Break the Shadows” features classic Blues picking and “Two Hands Against the Wheel”, with its ambient bird noises and returning hushed vocals is a soft road anthem. The rhythmic blips and subtle stabbing guitar give album closer “Stars & The Deep Blue Sea” an industrial grip, unexpected but welcome parts to an E.P. that bucks any genre expectations. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Great Peacock (from the album Forever Worse Better available as a self-release) (by Joe Burcaw)
Great Peacock is yet another up and coming Country/Pop trio residing in the hotspot music hub of America, Nashville Tennessee. An exception needs to be made for these boys, because nothing I have heard (Country themed) coming out of Nashville sounds anything close to the sonically layered nuggets on this band’s third release, Forever Worse Better. Think U2 blended with smatterings of Coldplay and 90’s college Alternative Rock musically speaking, highlighting guitar echoes and delays similar to The Edge’s bag of tricks without the monstrous pedal boards, sequencers, and beanie cap. The band is comprised of Andrew Nelson lead vocals/guitar, Blount Floyd harmony vocals/guitar, and Frank Keith IV bass guitar. Prior to recording Forever Worse Better the guys were strictly acoustically driven, but in 2018 they made the decision to drop the acoustics for electrics and haven’t looked back. A wise decision because this intentional move has put them above the rest in a category all their own, which they have currently conquered all alone, on their own.
The lead-off single “All I Ever Do” has been getting a lot of airplay and is climbing up the national charts as I type. If terrestrial radio was still formatted by DJ’s and not music director/business execs, this well-crafted little ditty would be #1 on The Hot 100…. seriously! What grabbed me instantaneously was the backbeat, I love drummers who can keep time and keep the fills to a minimum and just serve the song, and Nick Recio did a fantastic job managing the skins with brute force and agility. I came across an NPR live sessions performance and they played “All I Ever Do” with a lap steel player who stole the show, dropping in ambient swells and echoes all over the place, it was brilliant. Another soon to be chart buster (if released as a single) is the sing-along anthem “High Wind” with vocal elements of Shawn Mullins and a very young Johnny Cash hovering above whispering throughout. ‘I ain’t afraid of dying, I wanna ride that high wind, I’m afraid of never being alive’. I know I sound like a broken record, but the key to this tune’s success is the drumming, it is spot on solid and consistent from start to finish, and the vocal arrangements weaving in and out of the chorus’s blend in ‘ohh’ so perfectly.
“Help Me Lord” is a sweet laidback ballad highlighting Andrew Nelson’s vocal convictions, and ability to belt a note without veering off into no-man’s land with his pitch. He manages to take command, keep control, and grab hold of the reigns by showcasing a powerful vocal delivery. I wouldn’t be surprised if this band gets nominated for a Grammy next year, I feel like 2021 is their year to shine. Keep up the great work gents!
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Crock of Gold (from the album Crock of Gold available through Magnolia Pictures) (by Joe Burcaw)
OPENS DECEMBER 4, 2020
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan
A film by Julien Temple
I have never been a huge fan of American cinema; the oversaturated rubbish coming out of Hollywood focuses on bombastic explosions, the exploitation of women in scantily clad clothing, and rudimentary dialogue any fourth grader would enjoy. When I saw Johnny Depp’s name linked as producer to Shane’s documentary my heart sank, not because I dislike Johnny, he’s a true pioneer of quality acting, but because of ‘the hipster’ scene he is so often associated with. Well, I was pleasantly surprised after viewing Crock of Gold. This brilliant film hits home for any fan of Irish music, and for anyone who gives a feck (Shane’s favorite family word) about Irish history and struggle. I was sold from the opening scene hearing the haunting brass of Sean Ó Riada’s “Mise Éire”, a traditional song BLACK 47 (Joe Burcaw, writer, was bass player for BLACK 47 – editor) used before walking onto the stage, that surely warmed my soul. I came away with a better perspective of who Shane McGowan truly is, an Irish Catholic (with a brief stint of atheism) who holds a strong allegiance to his Irish heritage, and to the tradition of Irish music. There is no dancing around issues with him, and that is what I found so endearing about his sense of character. He is not in denial of being a former junkie who drank too much. He still drinks, but he says that it’s under control. Whether or not this admission is true really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. After watching the film it’s clear this has been a lifelong addiction starting from the age of five, so chances are high the demons remain deeply embedded.
Director Julien Temple did a wonderful job grabbing archival footage of Shane back in his punk days flailing around at London-based shows by The Clash, and even capturing him getting his ear bitten off by a fellow fan. This event got him into the British zines and newspapers granting Mr. McGowan complete street credibility for his pain. I also appreciated hearing his family, most importantly his sister Siobhan, who cast an inside look at what the family went through leaving Ireland for England in search of better employment opportunities. She laments over her brother’s near nervous breakdown when forced to leave behind the quiet farming lifestyle for an urban upbringing in a residential complex named Barbican, of Central London.
This was the time Shane started experimenting with drugs, booze, and women running around with mates from the other side of the tracks. Even though he was a very bright student on academic scholarship, conventional schooling was not meant for him as he eventually dropped out to pursue his passion to make it as a musician, and the rest is history. You know what you get with Shane, take it or leave it his honesty is admirable. He can be moody and abrasive if he feels like he is being pushed into a corner by journalists asking ridiculous questions. He can also be charming and engaging if caught at the right time of day, you just never know what you will get. One observation is very clear, and that is how sharp, and aware he is, it may take him a little bit of time responding to a question, but his cognitive faculties are completely intact. It’s his body that is failing him due to a pelvic injury from a fall. He has been confined to a wheelchair for the last few years, and he hopes to someday walk again on his own. It’s this sense of positivity that seems to keep him motivated to tread above water and not acquiesce to the bodily issues plaguing him from day to day. The Pogues have become legends worldwide, influencing legions of artists to fuse Trad with Rock & Roll. The mark they left behind will remain untouchable, and no one can deny the magical pixie dust Shane McGowan sprinkles on top of his lyrics and songs.
I used to enjoy hearing the stories of how Frank Murray (former Pogues manager) got wind of BLACK 47 and signed them to his record label resulting in them opening for The Pogues multiple nights at Brixton Academy in London. The shows were complete madness, and the amount of energy circulating around the venue could make one’s head explode. Few musical acts have succeeded in making such a huge emotional impact on their audience, The Pogues were all in a league of their own. It is undeniably apparent while watching the live footage the surge of exhilaration and excitement oozing from fans pores when Shane and company performed. They created a movement that demanded people to take a serious listen to what they were trying to convey, and fortunately a lot of us jumped onto the bandwagon and listened intently. Whether you’re a fan, or an individual discovering his music for the first time, I cannot stress enough the importance of giving Crock of Gold a chance to sway you into becoming an admirer of his supremely talented style of songwriting. Kudos to Senor Depp for honoring the legacy and genius of a man named Shane McGowan.
View the trailer for Crock of Gold
For more information head on over to the Crock of Gold website
OPENS DECEMBER 4, 2020
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan
A film by Julien Te
Dave Alvin (from the album From an Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings available on Yep Roc Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Dave Alvin is a living history lesson. A dude well-versed in all the ones-that-came-before, a musician who made modern American Blues while being the guy that banged around with L.A.-based early 80’s Punk Rockers. Dave Alvin connects the dots between Watermelon Slim and Country Dick Montana, from Big Bill Broonzy to Billy Zoom. Dave Alvin’s latest From an Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings, an album of rarities and B-Sides, showcases all his chops and musical roles, from Folk songwriter to a Western Swing, through Cowpunk, and Cosmic Country. Instrumentally Alvin performs in top form, “Perdido Street Blues” is a bouncy Ragtime hoot, the barroom piano and pedal steel guitar perfect partners to Alvin’s acoustic picking while “(Variation’s on Earl Lee Hooker’s) Guitar Rumba” is a Bossa Nova blast with Dave’s guitar being a solo aggressor.
Dave Alvin’s warm croon wraps around you like a blanket in the laid back, Chris Smither-penned “Link of Chain” while he lays out a mysterious, spoken word version of “Highway 61 Revisited”. Dave Alvin nods to his running buddy and bandmate, the late Chris Gaffney, on a Boogie Blues version of “Albuquerque”, a grooving swing ode to the ‘pretty senorita’s and the Navaho’ that should be picked up as an anthem for the Duke City. Dave Alvin is a bluesman, sneaking off to see soon-to-be Blues heroes as a boy. The influence is obvious on the instrumental “Krazy and Ignatz” and the gritty and dirty “Peace”. Dave Alvin, however, won’t be pigeonholed, taking no liberties on the good-time Doug Sahm cut “Dynamite Woman.” A good insight into Dave Alvin’s record collection, and what makes his musical clock tick, From an Old Guitar also features cuts from Peter Case, Mickey Newbury and Marty Robbins. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Chris Stapleton (from the album Starting Over available on Mercury Nashville Records)
Putting emotion on a personal level, Chris Stapleton presents Starting Over as a DIY guide for 2020 and beyond. From road-tested DNA citing “Hillbilly Blood” as a cause and effect, Chris Stapleton examines life from all sides, circling human extremes in joy and in struggles. Dave Cobb returns to helm Starting Over, producing the album and arranging the instrumentation to accent and support the powerhouse vocal of Chris Stapleton. The title track begins the song cycle for Starting Over, shaggy strums laying out a shuffle for Chris Stapleton to enter the album on a leaving song. Using forty years as a milestone “When I’m with You” sees a man shake off the weight of decades to sing a love song as “Whiskey Sunrise” faces off with a morning mirror and admits to manageable medications as trouble walks into the room on “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice”.
It is a rare breed of musician that can follow their own muse while managing to be a musical chameleon, the melodies becoming all things for all listeners. Starting Over continues to deliver the Chris Stapleton brand to multiple formats that each consider the man and his music their own. Penning a goodbye love letter, Chris Stapleton addresses bittersweet thanks to “Nashville, TN”. As a tender of flames, Chris Stapleton targets his anger on a Las Vegas gunman in “Watch You Burn” and cools the ashes of a forbidden fire in “You Should Probably Leave” while Chris and the band leave a mark on the highway from the guitar electricity flashing on a ride through “Arkansas”. If his stature and overall presence aren’t enough to make you pay attention to the advice from Chris Stapleton, consider the man is seldom wrong as he takes Starting Over out with a public service announcement. He is not selling snake oil when Chris Stapleton suggests a remedy for ‘preachers preachin’, politicians, bitchin’’ as he fires up a hit of “Worry Be Gone”.
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