On Episode 97 of Chris Shiflett’s Walking The Floor podcast, the Foo Fighters guitarist and part-time Americana solo performer interviewed Chris Stapleton, and the topic of Saving Country Music came up in the context of criticizing music in mainstream country.
Chris Shiflett brought up how Stapleton’s success is very much the result of two separate worlds coming together. Stapleton’s solo albums and his work with the SteelDrivers is very independent and organic in nature, while his work on Music Row as a songwriter for people such as Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett is what helped ingratiate Stapleton to the mainstream industry. So how was he able to reside in both worlds, and balance the two?
“I don’t care what the labels are,” Stapleton said to Shiflett. “And I hate when people argue about it like there’s some right or wrong answer. If you don’t like something, don’t listen to it. Listen to something else. But listen to music and go buy a ticket to a live show because that’s what keeps music healthy.”
This is when the topic of Saving Country Music came up.
“Does it get tiresome to have that guy Saving Country Music tag you,” Chris Shiflett asked, “and you’re like, ‘What are you talking about, I come from that world man, give me a break?'”
“I don’t know,” Stapleton responds. “They put that stuff on Sturgill for a while. That’s how you sell magazines, and critics get paid to be critical, and they always want to stir the pot a little bit I guess. But also for us they’ve been very kind … I respect anybody who can get out, knowing what it takes to come out here and tour, and earn an audience.”
First off, the idea that Saving Country Music has ever lumped the responsibility of “saving country music” on the shoulders of any individual artist, expected any artist to act as a “country music savior,” or attempted to guilt trip Stapleton or others to confront the ills of Music Row and call out artists or music from the mainstream, is a misnomer based on a shallow observance of what Saving Country Music does.
If artists such as Sturgill Simpson, Dale Watson, and Whitey Morgan choose to speak out, that is there prerogative. But artists obviously have no obligation to address what is happening in the mainstream if they don’t want to, and certainly aren’t being guilt tripped to do so, or even be a part of that movement if they choose not to. Saying that Chris Stapleton’s music is making mainstream country music better or helping to “save country music” is simply an opinion, and flattery at worst. The leadership to save country music must come from the music itself—not what anyone says or does off the stage—and Chris Stapleton is a perfect example of that.
Frankly, it is difficult to cover this topic without feeling redundant, since it’s been addressed ad nauseum here before, and usually not in response to anything Saving Country Music has said or done, but other outlets with hyperventilating Millenial writers fawning over Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell, writing in hyperbole, and absconding with the “saving country music” phrase for their own devices.
In February of 2016, Chris Stapleton was interviewed by The Nashville Scene and said, “I don’t think country music needs saving.” Similar discussions were also covered in the conversation making the case Against Chris Stapleton as Country Music’s Savior.
As was said at that time:
Chris Stapleton is the dramatic exception, not the rule. He was a successful songwriter and was able to feed his family way before his solo career took off. He was able to make the album he wanted with Traveller, and he was allowed to have that album highlighted on country music’s biggest stage because of the respect of his industry peers. Stapleton did time in vans and cheap hotels touring with the Jompson Brothers and the Steeldrivers previously, but somehow he seems to have forgotten about the struggles true country artists go through every day to make ends meet, while undisciplined, under-qualified, and lesser-talented performers continue to move up in the industry.
So it’s no wonder Chris Stapleton sees the glass half full when it comes to the country music industry, and may not think there’s any need to save it, or for a savior to rise up from the ranks of performers. Meanwhile hundreds of skilled songwriters are out on the street. And the same goes for singer/songwriters and many performers. As artists like Chris Stapleton, Luke Bryan, and Sam Hunt dominate the country music landscape from top to bottom in sales, the breadth of artists enjoying commercial success, radio play, and industry support is anemic compared to previous eras. Even artists signed to major labels are more susceptible than ever before to being dropped with their albums sitting on a shelf, or having their creative expressions stymied by label executives or producers.
And none of this broaches the issues of the historic inequality against female performers currently plaguing country radio, the scourge of 360 deals ruining artists’ lives and careers, and other equality issues.
People don’t complain about Sam Hunt’s music just because they hate it and they want others to be won over by their perspective. It’s because they want folks to know that there’s something better out there; that there’s artists like Chris Stapleton that can deliver something that is more uplifting and inspiring to them.
Chris Stapleton seems like a sincerely nice guy at heart, and averted to conflict in just about any context. You’re never going to hear him call out another artist or a piece of music because it’s not his thing. And that’s not only okay, that’s one of the cool things about Stapleton—that he is so even-keeled and calm-minded, despite the tortured soul his music personifies, and the conflicting nature of the two music worlds he resides in. He’s made a lot of money by writing songs for others, and now by playing his own music his own way, and has become a superstar. The success of Chris Stapleton is something we should all celebrate. But we shouldn’t use that success or some Kumbaya philosophy to gloss over the continued failures of the country music industry to fairly vet talent, and offer equality to all artists and songwriters, or to properly classify what country music is.
I hope Saving Country Music is “tiresome” to those who can only benefit from the continuation of the status quo. Nobody has spilled more positive ink for Chris Stapleton, sometimes to the ire of regular readers. But his story and the lessons that can be garnered from it are important, inspiring, and necessary to discuss if certain issues and dilemmas that persist in country music—despite Stapleton’s success—are ever to be solved, or at least mitigated.