A week from this evening, the music industry will be gathering in Los Angeles for the the world’s biggest music event of the year: The Grammy Awards. Unlike many years, fans of true and traditional country music will have someone to root for when it comes to the night’s biggest prize, even if it isn’t the most ideal artist to champion. Chris Stapleton will be doing battle with other titans of music entertainment for Album of the Year. He’s also up for Best Country Album, and his song “Traveller” is up for two country-specific awards. As much success as Chris Stapleton has found after his massive night at the CMA Awards in November, he’s also poised to possibly be the biggest winner on February 15th as well.
It was recently announced that Stapleton would be performing on the Grammy stage in a tribute to B.B. King with Gary Clark Jr. and Bonnie Raitt. Any performance slot on the Grammy Awards is a high premium and honor, but it is a bit disappointing that it appears Stapleton won’t get a chance to perform one of his own songs on the presentation. The argument could be made that Stapleton’s appearance on the CMA’s with Justin Timberlake was one of the biggest awards show performances ever. It definitely launched one of the biggest post-awards sales bumps in history, with Stapleton poised to shortly take over the highest-selling country album in the last nearly two years in a matter of weeks, whether he wins anything at the Grammy Awards or not. Traveller has been holding court at the very top of Billboard’s Country Albums chart ever since November’s CMA’s.
And the think pieces written by country and entertainment pontificators keep on coming, proclaiming Chris Stapleton as a new savior of country music. On January 28th, The Nashville Scene—Nashville’s alternative newsweekly—published its annual critic’s poll for 2015, of which Saving Country Music and dozens of other outlets participated. It’s one of the most in-depth barometers on country music sentiment of its kind. The resounding consensus after querying country music’s critics-at-large was that 2015 was the year of Chris Stapleton, and as part of that crowning, Stapleton participated in a cover story for the magazine, just as Sturgill Simpson had done in 2014 when he walked away as the resounding favorite of critics.
And just like Sturgill Simpson, Stapleton has been quick to distance himself from any mantle or moniker as a country music savior. In fact in his estimation, such a thing is not necessary. “I don’t think country music needs saving from anything,” says Stapleton to The Nashville Scene. “Whether you like modern incarnations of what country radio hits are, or you like what I’m doing, or you like something really off in folk, poetry Americana land, it’s all just music, man. If you like one of them, great, go buy it.”
Sounds simple, right? But the problem with Chris Stapleton’s take on what motivates folks concerned about country music is the same misconceptions most people have: that it’s all about complaining about bad music or tired arguments about what defines country.
“I would rather people stop caring about lines,” Stapleton says. “Nothing gets on my nerves more than somebody else spending all their energy and time talking about something that they don’t like, and trying to convince you [that] you shouldn’t like it, and this thing over here is better. … I don’t like sushi. In fact, I kind of loathe sushi. But I don’t go around trying to convince my wife or any of my friends, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t eat sushi, it’s terrible.’ It’s the dumbest thing ever. It doesn’t make sense to me why we do that with music. We don’t really do that with anything else. … I think it’s OK if somebody likes my music and likes Sam Hunt’s music too. And I think if we’re both selling records, it’s good for everybody. I think it allows other records to get made.”
It allows other records by Chris Stapleton and Sam Hunt to get made, and it’s good for everybody who is already connected to the industry and making money. But the gulf between the have’s and have not’s in country music has never been greater. Chris Stapleton started in the Nashville music industry as a songwriter. As Nate Rau of The Tennessean pointed out in January of 2015 in a piece called “Nashville’s Musical Middle Class Collapses,” the amount of full-time songwriters in Nashville has fallen by a dramatic 80 percent since 2000. This is according to the Nashville Songwriters Association International. This trend is primarily because the ability to write for the country music industry has fallen into the hands of a very few select and connected songwriters networked into a few select circles. That is why you keep seeing the same names of songwriting contributors on so many records, and why many of the songs emanating from Nashville sound the same.
And Chris Stapleton is very much a part of this exclusive songwriting collective.
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.
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.
And none of this broaches the issues of the historic inequality against female performers currently plaguing country radio, stories of artists like Katie Arminger being forced to over-sexualize herself in an attempt to sell her music, the scourge of 360 deals ruining artists’ lives and careers, and other equality issues like the recent exclusion of Green River Ordinance from Billboard‘s Country Albums charts.
Caring about what country music has become goes way beyond complaining about the latest Sam Hunt single, or the eternal arguments about what country music is. The case could be made that country music has never been more cloistered and insular and inbred. And that is what is so exciting about the success of an artist like Chris Stapleton; it opens up the possibility that things might be changing, and opportunities for other artists that are high on talent may finally open up so they can find the attention they need to prosper, and the public can be served the music they deserve in a bereft cultural marketplace.
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. This is not just about taste. This is about materialism vs. inspiration. This is about bigotry vs. respect. This is about listening to music that makes us better people, and music that breeds understanding and mends heartbreak as opposed to portraying life as one endless party.
Chris Stapleton has never been the ideal candidate for a country music savoir, if that’s even a thing country music fans should be on the look for, or covet. As much as it’s part of country music’s mythos, hoping for a savior might be an exercise in setting yourself up to be let down. Chris Stapleton is too connected to the industry to fill that role completely. Perhaps Stapleton doesn’t posses that drive to worry about the world beyond his own perspective, and that’s fine. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t make some great music, and music that is more in line with what country fans should expect from its premier, top-level artists, of which Chris Stapleton is now very much a part of. Forget the radio charts, there’s no artist in country music right now that’s bigger than Chris Stapleton.
And come Grammy night, there may not be an artist any bigger in all of music. And I don’t give a damn if Chris Stapleton thinks that country music needs to be saved or if he fancies himself a savior, I will be rooting him on none the less. Because Chris Stapleton is helping to save country music, whether he wants to be or not.