2016 will be an exciting year for country music. I know that, because Chris Stapleton just won big at the CMA Awards, and absolutely crushed it performing with Justin Timberlake in front of millions of television viewers. Why do those two things matter? I’ll explain.
Let’s start with the state of mainstream country music: It doesn’t sound anything like country music. It’s a mish-mash of pop, rock and hip-hop with a slight twang. It’s over-processed, over-produced and targeted at the heartland market using keywords and tired cliches. It’s an affectation of what it used to be. But there are artists rising to the top, like Chris Stapleton, who make real country music. Soulful, gritty, affecting country music that the artist wrote themselves.
Stapleton spent much of his career writing number one hits for country’s leading men, and this year he went all in, dropping his debut album, Traveller. It’s about as good a debut as any artist could hope for. From start to finish, every track demands multiple listens. Traveller is the darling of both critics and real country fans, but it hasn’t had any love from mainstream country radio, partly because people don’t know who Stapleton is. That all changed last night when he won New Artist of the Year, Best Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year, and performed a jaw-dropping duet with one of the world’s biggest pop stars on the biggest stage in country music. Millions of mainstream fans who had no idea who Chris Stapleton was just watched him outshine Timberlake, and it was awesome to watch. Did you see how emotional the audience was over this?
Here’s why all this matters: the CMA Awards play a big role in determining who the big public figures are in country music for the coming year. When the CMA voting block – which consists of industry professionals, not fans – vote for a winner, they are making a statement about where country music is headed. For them to pick Chris Stapleton as the New Artist of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year and give him the Album of the Year, that says they believe the type of country music he represents deserves to be noticed. I would be surprised if Stapleton doesn’t finally get heavy rotation on mainstream country radio following this year’s CMAs.
But there’s another side to this, and it has to do with Justin Timberlake. He seems to be plotting a shift into country music. He’s hinted at the transition a few times over the past couple years. Remember his surprise appearance at Garth Brooks’ show at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville show when he played “Friends in Low Places”? He also purchased a $4 million property near Nashville, which was owned by Aubrey Preston, who saved Music Row’s historic Studio A. Timberlake went on Oprah’s Masterclass and said in an interview, that, “When you look at me, you should understand that I am America.” The guy even said he had his eyes on a best country album. If I were a betting man, I’d wager Timberlake will be doing something with country music in the coming years. He’s slowly been sussing out whether that’s viable with country fans. His killer duet with Stapleton at the CMA Awards was a massive crowd pleaser, so it seems like he passed the test.
All of that matters because Timberlake’s showed what kind of country music he wants to play – the authentic kind, and who he wants to make it with: Chris Stapleton, the guy who writes good music true country fans want to hear. If Timberlake makes the crossover, the labels, executives and country radio will have to follow suit. Timberlake has massive star power. Heck, how many non-country fans who would never have never listened to country music tuned in to watch him on the CMA Awards? It would’ve been one thing if Timberlake said, “You know, Florida Georgia Line rips it up, I’d like to duet with them.” No, he did a duet with Chris Stapleton, and that’s a boon for what we’ve had to refer to as Americana for quite some time.
If Stapleton starts to get heavy rotation on mainstream, his contemporaries, like Sturgill Simpson — who has a big project with Atlantic in the works – and Jason Isbell, who had one of the best-selling country albums not on country radio this year, will finally get on country radio. Do you see where I’m going with all of this? It could mean that the stuff you used to know and love as country, now housed under the Americana genre label, will get its rightful place back on country radio, and we may finally start to put the ridiculousness coming out of Nashville behind us.
Now, you could also argue that I have illusions of grandeur, and that they’re just CMA Awards, and it was merely a good performance between two musicians who are mutual admirers of one another. But I don’t think that’s the case. Stapleton isn’t a flash in the pan. He’s written hit after hit for guys like Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett, poster boys of the mainstream. He’s sustained a career for years as a performer and an amazing songwriter, and it doesn’t go unnoticed.
Aside from that, people have shown that they want authentic country music, and that they’re tired of the pop-rap-rock-with-a-fiddle content constantly pumped out of Nashville. That’s why the strength of Stapleton as an artist and his excellent album Traveller won him the awards. It’s why Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free sold so many units on its initial release. It’s why Sturgill Simpson has accrued a massive fanbase in just one year and landed a coveted contract with Atlantic. And it’s why country music is going to be good again in 2016.