Here we are with a nice, tidy little bow wrapped around 2018, with the barrage of end-of-year lists finally published and in the past, the confetti from New Year’s celebrations all swept up, and the promise of an exciting new year of country music on the way. But how good or bad really was country music in 2018? How much progress was made in the effort to save country music? That’s kind of a complicated question, and one you can try to answer in a few different ways.
If you go by the measure of who the biggest artist in all of 2018 in country music was, and you’re being honest with yourself, it was a good year, with maybe some fair reservations. It wasn’t a great year, but a good one. Chris Stapleton was once again the biggest artist in country music according to Billboard, which took into consideration overall chart performance for songs and albums to come to that conclusion. This is Stapleton’s second time at this spot. He also was the biggest artist in 2016 in the aftermath of his now legendary CMA Awards wins and performance in November of 2015, and was #2 in 2017, just behind Sam Hunt, who had his (then) historic run at #1 with “Body Like a Backroad.” Chris Stapleton was helped in 2018 by finally breaking through the radio barrier, and scoring his first #1 with “Broken Halos.”
The problem with Chris Stapleton being the #1 overall artist in country is that he’s Chris Stapleton, and simply his name evokes strong opinions from country fans on both sides of the fence, and frankly, opinions that are often out-of-sync with the reality of things. For many country traditionalists and purists, Chris Stapleton’s name is mud, charged with being no different than Luke Bryan or Thomas Rhett. Hell he wrote songs for those guys, and was out there singing with former boy band member Justin Timberlake. But to the leering press who only know country music from the outside looking in, Chris Stapleton is the essence of traditionalist country, paraded as a country hero because he’s got a big beard and barely any radio play. He might as well be the 2nd coming of Waylon. Just ask The New York Times. Other mainstream fans despise Stapleton because he’s won so many awards over their preferred artists.
Of course the truth of things lies somewhere in between, and in between is not somewhere you want to be in 2018, or 2019. Because people don’t like in between. They despise and distrust pragmatists, and people who won’t take a stance one way or the other. There is no mental capacity for someone who doesn’t fit within a binary assessment, in country music or anywhere else. Either you have to be an absolute purist, or you have to be a pop sensation. There is no in between.
Yes, Chris Stapleton did write songs for some of country’s biggest arena stars, which traditionalists love to point out. But he didn’t write those songs for them specifically. He wrote songs to put food on the table for his family, and superstars chose to cut them. Yes, he’s won big-time mainstream industry awards, partially due to his time as a songwriter, making friends and allies throughout the business who in turn reciprocate their appreciation by voting “Stapleton” whenever they see the name on a ballot.
But to lump Chris Stapleton with the Bro-Country lot is nothing short of diseased, not only because it’s flatly incorrect, but it’s making country fans who do show fair concern about the direction of the music out as out-of-touch, no different than the media members who really think that purists stand behind Stapleton 100%, like he’s Cody Jinks or something. The all-genre entertainment media have no idea who Cody Jinks even is, let alone what he’s been able to achieve as an independent performer. To them, Kacey Musgraves is an underground artist, and Stapleton is only popular by accident. The Turnpike Troubadours are some bar band that Miranda Lambert used to date the lead singer of, and Midland is an authentic Texas honky tonk outfit. Tyler Childers is a virtual unknown.
So ultimately, what does it mean that Chris Stapleton was the biggest artist in 2018 in country music? It means that it wasn’t Luke Bryan, that it wasn’t Jason Aldean, that it wasn’t Florida Georgia Line, despite their historic #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart via their collaboration with Bebe Rexha, “Meant To Be,” which broke Sam Hunt’s thought-to-be insurmountable record from 2017. The performance of “Meant To Be” in 2018 also underscores that there is still a lot of work to do. Bro-Country, and Metro-Bro weren’t eradicated in 2018, and they likely never will be. But they were neutralized, marginalized, put on the wane, and with Chris Stapleton as the #1 artist, this prognosis is verified. Luke Combs coming in with the overall #1 record in 2018 with This One’s For You is further evidence of this trend.
Chris Stapleton is a good artist. He’s good for country music. He writes quality songs, and cuts them with an actual band, live in a studio. He doesn’t use drum machines or synthesizers. His music isn’t composed on a laptop with seven songwriters and four producers. His soulful, R&B-style voice made him the perfect superstar for our time, but his songs, arrangements, and sound are decidedly country. Chris Stapleton can’t help that he’s got a one-in-a-million voice, and can write songs to suit it, and that they’ve been received so well he’s outselling everyone else, and sucking up all of the industry awards. Success shouldn’t be seen as a burden on an artist, it should be taken with an honest assessment of the output itself, and if it’s worthy, celebrated so it will hopefully go on to be duplicated.
And what was one of the things Chris Stapleton did with all of this success, and the enhanced spotlight it came with? He invited an up-and-comer in Brent Cobb, and a traditionalist in Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives out with him on the road in 2018. Chris Stapleton’s success is opening doors all across the country music landscape, mainstream and independent, for artist who write their own songs and record with their own bands to have an opportunity. There’s now an economic model of how to succeed without radio, and without big producers. Kacey Musgraves followed that path, and now has her own Album of the Year trophy to show for it with Golden Hour.
Chris Stapleton was not Saving Country Music’s pick for the 2018 Artist of the Year. His last two records feel like also-ran’s of Traveller material, and if Stapleton is going to come even close to sustaining this momentum for yet another year, he’s going to have to dig deep within himself and be an artist, write some new stuff, find a wrinkle to keep what he does interesting, and prove he has something in him beyond one big moment at an awards show now over three years ago.
But if you can’t look back and appreciate that we live in an era when Chris Stapleton is consistently the biggest artist in all of country music after years of suffering under the Bro-Country regime—whether you’re a country traditionalist or a reasonable mainstream country fan—then you will never be happy about the state of mainstream country music. And that’s a shame.