Supported by a moody, shadowy string section, he unfurls a torch-singer side on Cold, a heartbreaker that lives up to its name in feel and lyrics—"Why you got to be so cold/ Why you got to go and cut me like a knife/ Put our love on ice." The lowdown-and-dirty guitar of Whiskey Sunrise is matched for power by a wailing blues delivery from Stapleton. And he cuts loose with a Southern-rock howl on the Tom Petty-esque swamp stomp Devil Always Made Me Think Twice.
An early Petty influence is alive and present across Starting Over, with Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench guesting on guitar and Hammond B3, respectively. Stapleton co-wrote the simmer-to-fury Watch You Burn with Campbell, and the guitarist's signature style is front-and-center on Arkansas, a heavy Southern-rock blues burner celebrating the underrated beauty of the Ozarks. The ghost of Guy Clark also blesses the sessions, as Stapleton covers a back-to-back shot of the songwriter's Worry B Gone and Old Friends and former with a velocity that makes Willie Nelson's gentle version sound cute. (A flow-like-the-creek cover of John Fogerty's Joy of My Life is more faithful.) As on previous releases, Stapleton's wife and collaborator Morgane Stapleton lends angelic vocal harmonies, sweetening the sobering, Kristofferson-sounding ballad When I'm With You, which finds her husband taking stock of middle age and where it goes from there: "I'm 40 years old/ And it looks like the end of the rainbow ain't no pot of gold."
She also shows up on that song's spiritual flip side and the album's title track, an optimistic, stripped-down guitar jangle: "I can be your lucky penny/ You can be my four-leaf clover.” Indeed, for all his tough-guy appearance, there's always been a tender side to Stapleton, and he shows every bit of it on Maggie's Song, an absolute tearjerker about a found dog's life and death that's teed up and ready for a pickup truck commercial. (Nothing wrong with that.) And lest anyone ever doubt his outlaw tendencies, Stapleton ends on an absolutely gorgeous kiss-off to the country capital: "So long Nashville, Tennessee/ You can't have what's left of me."