As we near not just the end of 2019, but the end of a decade in country music, it gives us a good opportunity to reflect back on what happened in country during the 2010’s, and how it will be regarded by future generations. No doubt when the history books look back upon the past decade in country, Bro-Country will be the dominating force. And though it may be nauseating to think that when the Hall of Fame enshrines its installations covering this era in country it will be a healthy dose of Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Sam Hunt, there will be a fly in the Bro-Country ointment, and one name that rises above the rest, at least when it comes to the albums released in the last 10 years.
Last week Billboard released its Top Country Albums charts for the last decade, and right on top was Chris Stapleton and his landmark album Traveller. Beating out blockbusters such as Sam Hunt’s Montevallo, Florida Georgia Line’s Here’s To The Good Times, and Luke Bryan’s Crash My Party, it puts an exclamation point behind the historic run this record has enjoyed, and how it saved country music from the Bro-Country era that dominated earlier in the decade.
Compiling both sales and streaming data over the last ten years, Traveller not only comes out on top, it does so even though its closest competitors had a head start. Traveller wasn’t released until halfway into the decade on May 5th, 2015, and unlike its Bro-Country counterparts, received only sporadic radio play. And yet even though the title is now some 4 1/2 years old, it still remains a perennial at the top of Billboard’s weekly Top Country Albums chart, including last week where it sat at #9, and was ahead of many mainstream albums released in the last year.
Of course on Billboard’s decade-ending version of the Hot Country Songs chart, it’s a different story, with Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s collaboration “Meant To Be” coming in at #1, and “Body Like a Back Road” by Sam Hunt coming in at #2. But this is skewed math compared to the album equations. Along with the dominance of Bro-Country in the decade, another critical event that will forever color the era in country will be Billboard’s decision to allow spins at pop radio to play into the calculations on the Hot Country Songs chart, giving songs like “Meant To Be” featuring a purely pop star an unfair advantage over artists who don’t pursue or achieve crossover airplay. That is how and why Bebe Rexha now holds the record for the longest-running #1 song in country music history, not because country fans and radio supported the song more than anyone else’s.
The Billboard’s end-of-decade album list also allows us to peek into the future. After Sam Hunt, Florida Georgia Line, and Luke Bryan, it’s Luke Combs and his breakout album This One’s For You that comes in at #5 on the decade. Released in 2017, it has been pulling a Chris Stapleton over the last couple of years, dominating the country albums charts unless another big title came around to knock it off its perch during the initial release week. A few weeks ago This One’s For You tied Shania Twain’s Come On Over as the only other record in country history to spend 50 total weeks at #1. Unfortunately Combs won’t get a chance to break that record because his latest album What You See Is What You get will likely dominate the chart for the coming months, if not years. There’s a good chance when we reflect back 10 years from now, it will be Luke Combs we’re talking about as the most dominant album artist of the decade.
Despite the contrast Chris Stapleton sets against Bro-Country, some country traditionalists and purists still see him as second rate, and nothing to get excited about. Some even accuse him of being not much better than Bro-Country, or indistinguishable from it. After all, he did once write a song for Luke Bryan. Like so many mainstream artists, Stapleton suffers from being uncool for being popular and successful. But this is missing the bigger picture about what kind of positive impact his career has made on country music, dotting the period at the end of Bro-Country’s dominance, and opening up the music to artists who write their own songs and produce their records live and without concerns for radio. Chris Stapleton has also opened the minds of many listeners to a world of music beyond what the radio serves them.
It was Chris Stapleton’s big wins at the 2015 CMA Awards (including Album of the Year for Traveller) that allowed country to move on from the Bro-Country era. We had a feeling at the time those wins could be historic, and mark a defining moment for country music. Four years later, and with the ability to reflect back on the decade, it’s easy to conclude they definitely were.
The 2010’s will go down in the country music history books as a Bro-Country black eye colored by bad songs full of cliches about beer, girls, tailgates, and backroads, often with lines that are rapped and beats that are electronic, while women were virtually excluded from participating. But above that steaming pile with be Chris Stapleton and Traveller, showing country music the way out of that creative malaise, and hopefully shepherding in an era where country music returned to its roots and substance, and rekindled its proud spot in popular music where songwriting and instrumentation still matter.
Billboard’s Top 10 Albums of the 2010’s
- Chris Stapleton – Traveller
- Sam Hunt – Montevallo
- Florida Georgia Line – Here’s To The Good Times
- Luke Bryan – Crash My Party
- Luke Combs – This One’s For You
- Jason Aldean – My Kinda Party
- Luke Bryan – Tailgates and Tanlines
- Lady Antebellum – Need You Now
- Kane Brown – Self-Titled
- Eric Church – Chief