Not everybody is happy about all this mainstream success and good times being had by Chris Stapleton and his fans, and I’m not talking about the apostles of Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett who got shafted last Wednesday night by Stapleton’s wins at the CMA’s. I’m talking about died-in-the-wool, tried-and-true country fans who think we’ve all been had by a pop star posing in an Outlaw’s costume who is nothing more than a puppet of the industry. Oh and that’s just where it begins. From conspiracy theories, to downright vitriol and venom for Stapleton, not everybody is on board, especially when you start talking about him in the context of a “country music savior.”
And if you take Chris Stapleton’s career, split it down the middle, pull out the tweezers and start dissecting, you’re going to find some unsavory stuff, at least if you’re a traditional country fan. Some of the concerns and criticism with Chris Stapelton and specifically how he got to this point are warranted. He did write songs for Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett, and he isn’t straight-down-the-middle hardcore traditional country like Jamey Johnson, or even Sturgill Simpson.
So for the sake of argument, fairness, and equal time, let’s take an honest, devil’s advocate look at Chris Stapleton, and see if some of this criticism is worthy of wearing the luster off of his CMA wins, and his astounding commercial success subsequently.
“He Wrote Terrible Pop Country Songs for Bad Country Stars”
On the surface, this criticism is true, and it is a criticism that has been levied against Stapleton by Saving Country Music commonly, as well as other critics and writers when taking into consideration the merits of Chris Stapleton the songwriter. Stapleton’s name has been on a number of songs that certainly haven’t done any favors in furthering the hopes of either substance or country roots making a resurgence in the mainstream. As a strong, dedicated member of the Music Row songwriting community, Stapleton has written songs for Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Thomas Rhett—not necessarily the resume you would expect from a country music “savior.”
However, when I really started digging deep into Stapleton’s songwriting catalog expecting to be able to populate a long list of songs Stapleton could be embarrassed for being a part of, I was sorely disappointed. When talking about songs that are truly disappointments, and not just songs that someone may not like for some reason, I surprisingly only came up with five of them that fit squarely in this category.
” “Crash & Burn” – Thomas Rhett
” “Something To Do With My Hands” – Thomas Rhett
” “South Side” – Thomas Rhett
” “Drink a Beer” – Luke Bryan
” “Hangover Tonight” – Gary Allan’s “Metro-Bro” song that bombed.
Now granted, if it’s news to you that Stapleton received a songwriting credit for these songs, you might be quite surprised and second-guess your Stapleton fandom yourself. But are any of these truly terrible songs from a songwriting perspective, or do we just hate them more because of who sang them, and how they were produced? With a song like “South Side,” there’s no excusing it. It’s absolutely deplorable, and anyone involved in any phase of its making should hang their head in shame.
But consider a song like Luke Bryan’s “Drink A Beer.” First off, Stapleton didn’t necessarily write this song specifically for Luke Bryan. He wrote the song, then at some point Bryan put a “hold” on it as they call it in the business, and eventually decided to record it. Also, even though “Drink A Beer” may not be great, it’s not particularly offense. It’s the production, Luke’s involvement, and the way the song was portrayed as “deep” that made it such a flash point. Otherwise, it’s harmless.
But take these five songs, and even consider there may be a few more bad ones lurking out there that may not be as obvious, including ones he wrote for Jason Aldean and Tim McGraw, and then consider all the good songs Stapleton has written, and some of the other artists who’ve cut his songs.
Chris Stapleton has also written songs for and with Jason Eady, Lee Ann Womack, Guy Clark, Will Hoge, Don Williams, George Strait, Anderson East, Lonesome River Band, Ashley Monroe, Kellie Pickler, Julie Roberts, Balasm Range, Alan Jackson, Josh Turner, John Michael Montgomery, Travis Tritt, Patty Loveless, and others. Oh, and he wrote or co-wrote virtually all the songs for the first two albums of the SteelDrivers.
Now granted, some of these names will still be polarizing to country purists. But these names should prove Chris Stapleton can, has, and does write country songs of substance, many times recorded by traditional country artists and in an overwhelming fashion when considering his entire body of work. Does that completely absolve Stapleton of any criticism for writing songs with Thomas Rhett? No, no it doesn’t. And it shouldn’t. But to say that he is a pop songwriter that all of a sudden flipped a light switch when it came to his own music to fool everyone is an aberration of the facts when taking into consideration the full breadth of his songwriting work.
“Chris Stapleton Isn’t Traditional Country”
I suppose by definition, Chris Stapleton isn’t traditional country in the traditional sense. Steel guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and banjo are not predominately featured on Traveller. But that’s partly because the record was cut live, and Stapleton plays his own leads. Chris does have a lot of blues, Southern rock, and R&B/Muscle Shoals influences in his music, especially in his singing style.
But to say Chris Stapleton isn’t country is hubris. He is a country artist, playing country music. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and many other country performers throughout the years did not have predominant country music instrumentation in their music either. Country music isn’t a formula, it is a feeling, and Chris Stapleton delivers that feeling in bushel baskets. The fact that he can remain country while instilling his music with elements from other influences is an asset, and one of the reasons it resonates so well with so many people.
It is a misguided notion to think that all country music must sound extremely traditional at all times or it can’t qualify as country at all. This Bible-thumping style of traditionalism isn’t helping preserve the traditions of country, it’s helping them slip through our fingers because it gives fuel to folks like Blake Shelton who say traditional country folks only want to listen to the exact same songs over and over and never want to move forward at all, because that’s exactly what these hardcore traditionalists are condoning.
Country must stick to its roots to survive, but it always has to push itself as well, to continue to stay relevant. An artist like Chris Stapleton embodies that balance of a traditional sound with a relevant approach.
“Just Wait, He’ll Be Cutting Pop Songs Soon Enough”
The next major move Chris Stapleton makes will be a big one. What will his next record sound like? Now that he’s solidly in the mainstream, will he start to collaborate with other mainstream artists like Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line? Part of this concern stems from the fact that Stapleton’s big moment came while he was sharing the stage with Justin Timberlake on the CMA’s.
The answer to this question is that we have absolutely no clue where Chris Stapleton will go from here, and it’s unfair to assume what Stapleton is going to do one way or the other in the future. As a country fan, to not sit back and enjoy the success Stapleton has found because you assume he will let you down seems like an unnecessary deprivation not based on anything but suspicion. Chris Stapleton has had every chance to sell out up to this point with his solo career, and instead he decided to cut an organic record with traditional leanings with Dave Cobb and a live band. Let’s enjoy these moments instead of fabricating reasons to believe they’re destined to be fleeting.
Granted, it is fair to criticize Stapleton for collaborating with Timberlake when the CMA’s are supposed to be a country show. Just because Timberlake is more liked than most pop stars in country and beyond, doesn’t remove the fact that he’s still a pop star, and one who got his start in a boy band to boot.
But Timberlake was also one of the catalysts for all of this success. It’s not ideal, but it’s also not the antithesis of traditional country some are portraying it to be. Once again, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and so many other traditional country stars collaborated with pop artists in their day, and some even had their dalliances in the pop realm themselves. But let’s focus on the here and now instead of anticipating being let down.
If, and it’s a big ‘IF,’ Chris Stapleton comes out with his next record and it’s more in the vein of Thomas Rhett, then there will be plenty of time to pummel him as the Benedict Arnold of country. Until then, let’s be happy there’s signs country music is moving in the right direction.
“Oh Great, Now Everyone Will Be Making ‘Traditional’ Country'”
One concern is that Chris Stapleton’s success will lead to really bad stars reverting to music similar to Chris Stapleton’s to ride this new craze that has suddenly taken over country music. Once again, let’s hold our horses. Chris Stapleton still remains very much an anomaly, not an entire paradigm shift in country music. We have no idea where all of this will lead. If it does lead to posers trying to make good country music but failing miserably at it, well then we’ll call those folks out, label them as phonies and bandwagoners when it’s time. Assuming this will happen and lumping the blame for it on Chris Stapleton could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s moments like Chris Stapleton’s wins where we don’t need to rest on our laurels, but double the efforts explain the virtues of true country music.
Others with a more selfish perspective don’t ever want to see true country music become accepted in the mainstream because they’ve built their entire identities around being oppressed as a traditional country fan. It’s what makes them feel unique, and they don’t want others impinging on the reality they’ve set for themselves. Some are country music warriors who’ve been fighting this fight for so long, they don’t know how to turn their daggers in for plowshares. All they know to do is fight. Some of them include artists who’ve been at this for a long time.
But simply put, these people are being very self-centered. Everyone has a right to good music, just like everyone has a right to good food and water. Many traditional country artists need the support of new fans to help sustain or grow their careers. To want to keep everything small and dingy just so it stays familiar to you is no way to be a good neighbor, or a good fan. Basically, it’s taking a page out of hipsterism.
“The CMA’s Were Rigged. It Means Nothing”
Undoubtedly horse trading, bloc voting, and other hijinks are behind many of the awards bestowed at the CMA’s and ACM’s, and a speculative eye should always be cast towards them. Saving Country Music has been engaged in this very practice as a gadfly and watchdog for years, at times specifically calling out organizations like the ACM’s for breaking their own stated rules.
Some are saying Stapleton’s wins were all a ploy to lure traditional country fans back in the fold, or otherwise anoint a new star that they can then turn into the next Luke Bryan.
In my professional opinion, having covered these awards shows for many years, and purposely attempting to seek out irregularities, issues with the rules, or other problems with the way the CMA’s and ACM’s conduct their business, I can say with great confidence that there was nobody more shocked at how the votes broke and allowed Stapleton to walk away with three trophies than the CMA, the CMA voters, and Music Row’s major labels. There is absolutely no financial benefit to what happened for anyone but Stapleton and his label. The good ol’ boy system that regularly rigs these awards always works to spread the love out among multiple artists on multiple labels. And that good ol’ boy system failed.
Why? Because it underestimated the love and respect Stapleton had garnered in the industry as a songwriter. Where the CMA good ol’ boy system failed was giving Stapleton the nominations in the first place. They thought this would be the red meat to keep the “traditionalists” and independent fans at bay. They never had any clue he would actually win.
Still others say, “Hey, it’s an anomaly. Next year it will be the same crappy people winning again.” People said that same thing when George Strait won Entertainer of the Year from both the CMA’s and ACM’s in 2013/2014. The tide is turning. The industry sees the value of keep traditional country and its fans in the fold. Most of the folks working in the country music industry know a lot of the music is garbage. They aren’t listening to it, they’re listening to Chris Stapleton. And that’s how they voted.
“Chris Stapleton Didn’t Get to the Top The Right Way”
Chris Stapleton did not get to the top of the country music ladder by punching and clawing his way there. There were definitely moments in his career when that was the case, when he was out on the road with the SteelDrivers and the Jompson Brothers paying dues. There were times he played small venues as a solo artist to virtually nobody. Stapleton paid dues, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
However, the very specific way he was able to get himself a major label deal, and walk away from the 2015 CMA Awards with three trophies was by working the system as a songwriter. Chris Stapleton played the game. He knew what he wanted, and he knew how he was going to get there. He saw how Luke Bryan, Brantley Gilbert, and many others started as songwriters, and then parlayed that into arena acts. He worked from inside the system. He shook hands and schmoozed with everyone. He collaborated with Thomas Rhett and others. And his name on Music Row spread to every office.
Meanwhile, there’s hundreds of other performers and songwriters out there doing it the right way. They never compromised or schmoozed with the wrong people. Is it fair that Chris Stapleton got to hopscotch them all?
No, it’s not fair, and there’s a strong contingent of artists and songwriters who are just as angry about all of the Stapelton love as many fans, and they probably have a right to be. Some of these artists are more traditional than Stapleton. Some of these artists have paid more dues. Some of them are just downright better. And it’s understandable these artists and their fans would be a little bitter about the Stapleton situation.
However there’s the forest, and then there’s the trees. Whether you’re a country artist doing it the right way, or the fan of these such artists, Chris Stapleton’s success only bodes well for you. Is Chris Stapleton some ideal specimen for every independent and traditional country fan to get behind? Of course not. But he’s damn close, and he’s the one who actually broke through the system.
And again, let’s point out that Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and others worked within the system as well. Willie started out writing pop country for Patsy Cline. He left RCA, but only to return to Music Row two albums later when he signed with Columbia to release Red Headed Stranger. As Tompall Glaser once said, “Damn it, the fight isn’t in Austin and it isn’t in Los Angeles. It’s right here in Nashville, right here two blocks from Music Row, and if we winand if our winning is ever going to amount to anything in the long runwe’ve got to beat them on their own turf.”
“He’s No Country Music Savior”
In some respects, Chris Stapleton may not make the best country music “savior” if there will ever be such a thing. There is something in the country music ethos that can’t help our brains latching onto the idea that at some point, some traditional country artist will come along and become a superstar without compromising and help turn the tide in country music. The concern with Stapleton is that he has compromised at times in his career. But even then, lumping such a distinction on any artist seems like an unfair load on their shoulders. Their job is to play music.
But who exactly is declaring Chris Stapleton a “country music savior”? As the proprietor of a site called “Saving Country Music,” I can say the vast majority of people associating Stapleton with being a country music savior are the same exact people complaining that he shouldn’t be regarded as one. In other words, even though you have to travel far and wide to find someone saying, “Chris Stapleton is country music’s savior,” you can’t post anything on Facebook about him without hoards of “REAL” country fans telling you how “he’s not a country savior.” It’s a “Straw Man,” or painting an extreme viewpoint to then refute it, when the case isn’t even really being made.
The only instance I could find of someone declaring Chris Stapleton a “country music savior” was the sports site Deadspin. And are we really going to let Deadspin write the book on Stapleton’s impact on country?
Maybe Cris Stapleton will save country music. Maybe he won’t. That’s for history to decide.
Dammit, Be Happy
Traditional and independent country fans have been so put under in the last half decade and beyond, a losers mentality has set in. In the end, this is the underlying reason for all of the concerns addressed above. They’ve become so used to losing, it has become part of their identity. They’re so used to seeing things go wrong, they’re untrusting when anything goes right.
Chris Stapleton’s success is a victory for country music. It’s a victory for traditional country, for independent country, for alt-country and Americana, and for bluegrass—all of which is embodied in the Chris Stapleton career and sound.
Dammit, be happy, and let’s celebrate. It doesn’t mean we should let our guard down, but it does mean things are changing.