Last night, country rocker Chris Stapleton took the 2015 CMA Awards by storm, shoving bro-country and country (c)rap out of the way to win Male Vocalist of the Year, New Artist of the Year, and with best-in-the-business producer Dave Cobb, Album of the Year for May’s “Traveller.”
Chris Stapleton straddles country and Southern rock, and previously, bluegrass. So he’s not strictly country – we’re not talking outlaw style like Sturgill Simpson or a traditionalist like Dwight Yoakam – but he can write and perform that way when he wants to, and he is damn good at what he does.
Despite the “New Artist” tag, you’ve heard his work if you listen to either mainstream radio country or bluegrass. From 2008-2010, he was the lead singer for that great bluegrass band, the SteelDrivers. As a songwriter, he has six #1 hits, and wrote or co-wrote four songs I really enjoy: “Your Man” for Josh Turner, “Love’s Gonna Make it Alright” for the king, George Strait, “Drink a Beer,” the only recent Luke Bryan performance I can deeply respect, and “Whiskey and You” for Tim McGraw, though I prefer Jason Eady’s version. You might have also heard “Never Wanted Nothing More” for Kenny Chesney, “Come Back Song” for Darius Rucker, and “Crash and Burn” from Thomas Rhett.
He’s also got an amazing beard that can almost compete with Jamey Johnson’s.
Does this mean the tide is turning? Not on its own, no, but it helps. Kacey Musgraves did well (not as well, but well) at the 2013 and 2014 award shows, but still hasn’t had mass radio play (though both albums were #1). That said, when you add these awards to Sturgill Simpson’s quick rise to the top; Jason Isbell and Alan Jackson’s iTunes album sales in July; attention for quality artists from major industry figures like Zac Brown, Justin Timberlake, and Blake Shelton; and the quick downfall of Sony exec Gary Overton after disparaging independent music, fans of Americana and actual country music have more momentum and more cause for hope than at any time in the past decade.
But remember: While Stapleton is authentic, he isn’t strictly country. As he told Rolling Stone, “I don’t like to put things in a box all the time. If I’m feeling like rock, we’ll do some of that, and if I’m feeling some other way, we might do some of that.” Look to him to make good music, but not to be a singular force that “saves” country radio or the industry.
I’ll have my review of “Traveller” in the next few days. Here’s one of last night’s duets between Stapleton and Justin Timberlake:
And here’s Jason Eady covering Stapleton’s “Whiskey and You”: