Chris Stapleton, and the Effort to Save Country Music

Shortly after the 2018 CMA Awards on November 14th, well-respected journalist Jon Caramanica of The New York Times conducted a podcast focused on the awards with fellow writers Nick Murray and Natalie Weiner. Nick Murray is a freelance country music journalist, and Natalie Weiner is a sports writer for The Bleacher Report who also covers country music upon occasion. Weiner has been mentioned on Saving Country Music before when in the context of Kacey Musgraves’ new album Golden Hour, she called the music of Chris Stapleton “rootsy traditionalism.”

During The New York Times “Popcast” episode, the subject of Saving Country Music came up, and in the context of Chris Stapleton and the CMA Awards.

“I feel like I sometimes sound unkind about Chris Stapleton on podcast,” Caramanica said. “But I quite like Chris Stapleton. What I dislike is the virtue signaling of CMA voters to sort of be like, ‘We are supporting ‘real’ quote unquote, true roots-oriented singer songwriter country music,’ especially two or three years ago when that stuff was not getting played on the radio. You hear Chris Stapleton on the radio now.”

This elicited Natalie Weiner to say, “Jon, are you suggesting that Chris Stapleton saved country music?”

“Let me check a website,” Jon Caramanica responds, as laughter fills the mics. “I hear there’s a website devoted to just that question. If you know what I’m talking about, you know what I’m talking about.”

But if you had checked that website, you would find that Saving Country Music’s opinion pretty much mirrors the opinion of Jon Caramanica when it comes to Chris Stapleton, and especially at the CMA Awards.

During Saving Country Music’s CMA Awards LIVE blog, after Chris Stapleton won his second out of three awards for Single of the Year, this was the comment left at the 7:47 mark:

“Ya’ll know I love Chris Stapleton. But giving Chris Stapleton both ‘Single of the Year’ and ‘Song of the Year’ feels like such a default by the voting community. Good song, but doesn’t deserve a ton of hardware. So many impactful songs out there.”

As Jon Caramanica explained, it’s nothing against Chris Stapleton. He’s better than most, and a better selection than some of the other nominees who could have won. I’m not sure it’s “virtue signaling” to pick Chris Stapleton necessarily. I think his luck at award shows has to do with the universal appreciation he receives throughout the country music industry, not just because he’s an artist of substance, but because he made many allegiances and friendships as a songwriter early in his career. People see his name on a ballot, and they can’t help but vote for him, regardless of the competition or context.

But the sameness and predictability of Chris Stapleton has worn thin, whether it’s his music or his chances at award shows. There was almost as much universal “meh” reaction to Stapleton’s wins as there was universal shock at Keith Urban being named Entertainer of the Year. If Stapleton was still turning the mainstream upside down like he was in 2015 and 2016, maybe this wouldn’t be the case. Traveller shook the country music world. But the From A Room Vol. 1 & 2 efforts felt too easy—9 songs, many of which had been heard by the world before, like addendums to Traveller as opposed to albums of growth.

It continues to be remarkable how some in the outside media consider Chris Stapleton as “traditionalism.” Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell are stamped with that label as well, simply because they’re non radio stars who’ve found mainstream-level success. Though this has been respectfully debunked to members of the media, some just seem to hold fast to that opinion and refuse to be swayed, even though Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell themselves have weighed in, and verified that they don’t consider themselves traditional country either. It’s a rather shallow observance of a complex genre. Making synonymous with traditionalism is just as shallow.

Country music is just big enough to gain attention from big, national media outlets, but often these outlets refuse to devote resources to dedicated journalists who understand the history, breadth, or nuance of the genre. This results in misnomers being printed in major periodicals which can be disrespectful to the artists and the music, beyond the opinions shared about a specific songs or someone’s awards show performance. This is one of the reasons NPR opened up a Nashville office (though country is much bigger than just the Nashville scene), and why NPR is one of the few national outlets that does a reasonable job covering country, roots, and Americana, while understanding the important differences between them all.

Has Chris Stapleton helped save country music? Yes, I would say he probably has. But a band like Midland is probably more “traditionalist” than Chris Stapleton at this point. Chris Stapleton is a songwriter, and he is country. But it was his soulful voice that hit right at the time when R&B was becoming all the rage in country that made him the right artist at the right moment, to the point where he’s still riding the momentum that first was set off at the 2015 CMA Awards.

There’s a good chance that next year Chris Stapleton doesn’t win anything at the CMAs. At the pace he’s going, it may be years before he writes a new song. Stapleton has talked about his difficulty composing new material himself. Things are good right now, and the fire to write new songs isn’t as easy to find as it was when nobody knew his name outside of Music Row and little blogs like Saving Country Music.

What Chris Stapleton will mean to country music in the grand scheme will be determined in the years to come, not just as history comes to a broad-minded conclusion upon his contributions, but what his next move will be. As Jon Caramanica of The New York Times said, it’s almost like the country music community is voting for the man instead of the music. It’s now up to Chris Stapleton to prove that he deserved all of those awards, and may deserve more in the future. Because country music won’t be saved at some magical moment you can then circle on a calendar. It is a ever-present effort that has always been necessary, and always will be. And those who understand this are those who truly understand country music.