Well, that cat that is Chris Stapleton is now out of the bag.
Thanks to a killer night at the 2015 Country Music Awards, Chris Stapleton is now plastered all over the mainstream country music market. If you weren’t aware, Stapleton took home the honors for New Artist Of The Year, Male Vocalist Of The Year, and Album Of The Year. And he had a duet with Justin Timberlake — the most talked-about performance perhaps of any award show this year — to boot.
He’s landed on every country website, every magazine, every playlist. His album Traveller, which had sold 100,000 copies in the 6 months after its release, a very honorable number, sold an additional 250,000 copies in the two weeks after the awards, earning it No. 1 status for two weeks on the Billboard 200 (!!!). His remaining tour dates sold out in hours.
The GRAMMYs — which have been better at recognizing genuinely good country artists and genuinely good country songs than the CMAs or ACMs over the past 20 years — even honored him with a coveted Album of the Year nomination.
By all accounts, Stapleton has had an amazing and well-deserved career burst. He’s also injected a lot of songwriters with hope that the mainstream has returned to collect on the melancholy lullabies penned in the dustiest corners of their mental attics. That is, he’s given the people who write sad, often slow and reflective tunes over four minutes long hope they could once again be the calling card of an industry whose backbone comes from titles like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”.
But are we getting duped? Is Chris Stapleton a mainstream country savior, or is he being propped up as a distraction from the larger problem: meaningless songs from cookie cutter artists drowning out truly compelling music. Will his sudden rise in the public eye lead to a widespread acceptance of all forms of country in the mainstream?
The CMA Awards would have you believe Stapleton is a once-in-a-generation talent, despite artist like Sturgill Simpson, Brandy Clark and Jason Isbell having breakout years in 2014 and 2015, as well. And yet, the Nashville powers-that-be are going out of their way to recognize Stapleton.
For instance, CMT made up an award in less than a month just so they could get him on TV during their “Artists of the Year” telecast. They fabricated the “Breakout Artist” trophy out of thin air and had Stapleton perform his song “Nobody To Blame”.
Prior to his solo success, Stapleton made quite a few friends as a songwriter in Nashville, penning hits like Luke Bryan’s “Drink A Beer” and “Come Back Song” by Darius Rucker, among many others. And the Nashville community is quick to point out that they’ve “known” about Stapleton for far longer than everybody else.
Lee Ann Womack, another fantastic artist, introduced Stapleton at the CMT telecast by saying, “In this town, we’ve always known both as a singer and a songwriter how truly incredible he is.” So why did it take so long for Stapleton to get recognized? Well, because the industry needs to prove that it has “heard” the complaints of many regarding the mainstream country landscape. Just read the rest of what Womack read from the teleprompter:
“Chris Stapleton is real. His songs tell stories. They’re authentic. His voice is rich and soulful, and no matter what he sings you believe him — because the music comes from deep inside him.”
It’s notable that, by saying these things, the community is tacitly acknowledging this is no longer normal in popular country music. Being authentic should not be exceptional; it should be a requirement. Meanwhile, the people who CMT actually dubbed “Artists of the Year” included Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt, who combined for 6 No. 1’s in 2015.
You may be noticing I left Blake Shelton off the list because while he’s flirted with gooberdom and insulted old country fans, he hasn’t gone full-on ridiculous like FGL and Bryan. And I respect Little Big Town too much to have to lump them in the same group altogether.
And the Stapleton media fanfare has clearly left some artists who made a pretty penny with pretty pointless music a little nervous. Brian Kelley, the inaudible-harmony-singing half of Florida Georgia Line, proved why he doesn’t do much talking when he half-heartedly addressed both Stapleton and critics of the bro-country trend his band championed.
During his speech, Kelley said, “It’s cool what’s going on in the music industry. Chris Stapleton, props to you, brother. Got to shout you out, man. Love what’s going on. Love that we can all have a chance to have a say, have a voice. Let’s be positive. Good vibes only.”
Chris Stapleton got well-deserved recognition from the mainstream powers that be because he has hard-earned relationships in town. The fellow artists and industry who make up the CMA voters, myself included, wanted to see somebody new crush it, and he was our best shot.
So this leads to my biggest concern: he’s being paraded around by an industry that has embraced the country equivalent of bubblegum pop as the solution to a problem it created. And honestly, that’s not to belittle bubblegum pop, which probably has more substance than the average first verse of a Jason Aldean single from the past five years. It’s kind of like Philip Morris giving three awards to chemotherapy.
But surely with Stapleton’s crowning achievements, mainstream radio has embraced him, right? Not quite. Mainstream country music is still propelled by mainstream country radio, and mainstream country radio still doesn’t care about Chris Stapleton. His single “Nobody To Blame” was released immediately after the CMAs. Despite Stapleton being plastered all over the place, his single sits at 26 on Country Airplay, only two spots ahead of Florida Georgia Line’s “Confession”, which they performed at the awards to a lackluster response and released at the same time. We’ll keep an eye on it, but I’d be very surprised if the former reaches No. 1.
But I’d love to be proven wrong, and it would definitely be a good start.
If Nashville really wants to prove its open to change, it needs to get radio to play the hell out of some Chris Stapleton records.
The only other country records to go No. 1 on the Billboard 200 sales chart this year were Jekyll + Hyde by Zac Brown Band and Kill The Lights by Luke Bryan. To date, Zac Brown has three radio No. 1’s from that record, two in country, one in rock, and Luke Bryan has two No. 1’s, soon to be three. If Stapleton doesn’t get a No. 1 single from his No. 1 record, he’ll be the first country artist since Toby Keith in 2010 not to do so, which is incidentally, around the time this whole mess started.
I won’t act like everything on mainstream radio is worthless listening. I’m a fan of a lot of mainstream country, historically, and I have aspirations for my own band to hit the mainstream, but I really drew the line with Cole Swindell. I just want every song I hear to be noticeably different and have some merit for being on the radio. I want to hear original hooks and interesting lyrics sang by talented singers.
Chris Stapleton also proved more than one kind of country can sell, and sell very well — all it took was the industry shining a light on him. So keep doing that. Do it to every deserving artist from all corners of country music. It can be catchy. It can be poppy. It can make lots of people lots of money. Just make sure it means something. And don’t keep shopping and signing the same keyword-boosted drivel in the dark while the lights are on artists who have something to say.
Chris Stapleton is not one of a kind, and that’s really good news.