This is not just another article about Chris Stapleton. This is an article about mainstream American country music radio.
Yes, Chris Stapleton won big, again. The story coming out of the 2016 ACM Awards held Sunday evening (4-3) is how Stapleton absolutely dominated the show, almost from beginning to the end. The opening skit by hosts Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley was about Chris Stapleton, with the biggest names in country all claiming they knew him first. The final performance of the evening was Chris Stapleton, because who wants to follow him these days and get outclassed? And in between, Stapleton unexpectedly won Song of the Year, and then secured Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year for his debut Traveller with ease, as if it isn’t unprecedented and groundbreaking in country music for an artist like Stapleton to all of a sudden become the artist of a generation.
Chris Stapleton won four awards at the 2016 ACM Awards, and Luke Bryan won none. Sam Hunt was completely shut out of the entire country music awards season, despite the massive commercial and radio success of his record Montevallo. Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line only walked away with one award each on Sunday; an afterthought of the 2016 ACM’s.
Right now we are witnessing something in country music that’s hard to appreciate in the here and now. It’s something as fans of authentic country music—meaning words and sentiments put to song by country-living people—that we thought we’d be relegated to only reliving in history books when we went back read how Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, or The Bakersfield Sound, or the Outlaws completely turned country music on its head, and put the focus back on the roots and the people fo the country where it belongs. The last artist in country music to have such a revolutionary and wide-ranging impact on the genre was Taylor Swift in the mid and late 00’s, but her revolution had quite an opposite impact as Chris Stapleton’s is.
If there was another big winner Sunday evening, it was Jason Aldean, who shocked many by walking away with the evening’s biggest prize, Entertainer of the Year. Though it seemed like a wild card pick, the win was likely arranged for Aldean since he’s been so big in the business for so long, and has never been bestowed the distinction by either the ACM’s, or the CMA’s. It’s always been believed that Aldean’s personal life has impinged on his popularity in the industry, and kept him from many top distinctions, despite being one of country’s biggest concert draws for many years now. But now the Aldean drought is over. It’s his first Entertainer of the Year award, and it will likely be his last. It may have been now or never for Aldean, because in the coming years, Chris Stapleton might be the one winning all of the Entertainer of the Year awards as well. Stapleton’s assured to at least be nominated if current form holds. So you better get yours now.
But this is not just about awards. For years, traditional and independent country fans told themselves awards don’t matter. It’s all political and pre-arranged. Whether this was true or or not, it is what we told ourselves to justify the colossal losses year after year as we watched our favorite artists get trounced, if they were even nominated. During the beginning of the 2010’s, there was nobody for traditional country fans to root for. Then all of a sudden, George Strait won two Entertainer of the Year trophies in 2013 and 2014 at the end of his career, and the possibility that things could change began to materialize.
Even if country awards are all political, and Chris Stapleton is just the next tool being propped up by the industry (after all, he wrote all those pop country songs for others), it doesn’t matter at this point because the Chris Stapleton steamroller has materialized into massive album sales that have made this much more than a one-dimensional movement. Chris Stapleton has sold more albums in the last 18 months than anyone else in country music, and that was before his big wins at the ACMs.
So does Chris Stapleton’s success mean that country music has been saved? We have an artist, though not firmly traditional country, but certainly an authentic performer from the Kentucky coal mining region with tons of blues in his voice and a steel guitar backing him up, and he’s winning everything: the awards, the album sales, the hearts and minds of American music listeners in country music and beyond like nobody has in years.
But Chris Stapleton’s impact still remains paltry on mainstream country radio.
Though his current single “Nobody To Blame” did crack the Top 10 a couple of weeks ago, it’s still hard to say that the lumbering, insular environment that pervades country radio has woken up to the Chris Stapleton phenomenon like the rest of the world. And even with Chris Stapleton’s massive wins at the ACM Awards, it still remains greatly in question if radio will ever take notice. They didn’t after Stapleton’s big wins in November at the CMA Awards, or his wins in February at the Grammys. It’s been six months now since this trend started, and radio still remains clueless, not just with Stapleton, but the groundswell of traditional and independently-minded country artists, including others in the mainstream, who are still being institutionally ignored despite increasing album sales and unquestionable resonance in the culture beyond the country music airwaves.
As the rest of the industry was ramping up for the ACM Awards last week, iHeartMedia—the largest radio station owner in America—quietly made a bold and important move. A radio executive named Zack Massey announced that iHeartMedia was opening a national content office for country music in Nashville, and that he would be the Country Content Bureau Chief. Despite catastrophic loads of debt for iHeartMedia and its biggest competitor Cumulus, both companies continue to double down on country as the format to dig themselves out of the current hole. But they’re not doing it by trying to become the discovery platform radio has been for so many years to American consumers, they’re doing it by continuing to slash staff and nationalize programming, which is what got the industry in trouble in the first place.
There will always be pop music in country, because there always has been pop music in country, from the very beginning. Those who dream of a day when there’s no Jason Aldean’s winning awards, or no Sam Hunt’s on the radio are living in a fantasy world. What there can be is balance, and that is what is symbolized by the emergence of Chris Stapleton. Balance has now been returned to the awards shows. It started with George Strait, and now its being realized fully with Chris Stapleton, not because he’s winning all of the awards, but that he’s winning the awards he deserves, while the huge, concert drawing and radio-dominating artist still are getting theirs.
Balance has returned to the album sales chart, and not just with Chris Stapleton, but with country legends like Willie Nelson and Alan Jackson, and independent artists like Jason Isbell and Aaron Watson. Balanced has returned to other sectors of the entertainment realm, like with independent female artist such as Margo Price and Aubrie Sellers playing the late night talk shows and Saturday Night Live.
Yet on radio, the same insular environment prevails. It is the last stronghold in the country music industry where an antiquated, good ol’ boy system remains firmly ensconced, with no prospects of the format getting on board with the balance country music needs to sustain itself moving forward, and bringing all of the disillusioned listeners it has lost over the last decade or more back on board.
If country music ever is “saved,” meaning an almost universally-recognized moment when balance and at least a modicum of fairness has been instilled throughout the industry, where the roots are preserved and respected at all times, where gender doesn’t hold artists back, and talent is what is put first and foremost when placing artists in line, history tells us that country music is likely to immediately begin its backslide once again. This is the cyclical nature of country music that is as eternal as the Great Smoky Mountains from which the music was derived. So vigilance will always be necessary. But we will never be able to declare total victory in the effort to return country music to its past glory without radio coming on board, or so imploding that it loses its ability to represent what country music is to the people at large.
Chris Stapleton doesn’t need country radio. He has proven that so demonstrably now, it’s not even worth discussing. And if Chris Stapleton doesn’t need country radio, that means nobody needs country radio to succeed. It’s country music who needs Chris Stapleton, and artists like him who are capturing the imagination and hearts of true country listeners once again.
The question is, will country radio listen? Or will country radio be left with anybody listening to it?