The biggest adversity to independent music is success. Nobody knows this better than Chris Stapleton. A golden boy of independent country and Americana fans when he first released Traveller—despite being on a major label—after he was fully embraced by the mainstream industry and was winning awards left and right, folks began vilifying him as a sellout and for not being as country as advertised. Stapleton went from universally acclaimed to polarizing in a matter of months, but like with all controversial personalities, the truth often lies somewhere in the middle.
Alan Jackson spoke to the strange place Chris Stapleton resides in when he said, “I love Chris, he’s authentic. A real writer. Musician. He opened for me for awhile before he hit so big. I’m a big fan of his. He was a bluegrass singer and has written bluegrass stuff. But what he’s making now really isn’t real country: It’s more like bluesy, Southern rock kinda stuff. I love it, it’s great, but he’s the closest thing to country out there.”
This is the way many country traditionalists regard Stapleton. Most appreciate the music as being more country than most in the mainstream, and quality regardless of the classification. But it’s not country music like Alan Jackson, for example, while some staunch purists go even farther and don’t consider Stapleton country at all, and don’t draw any distinction between him and the rest of the mainstream.
But Marty Stuart doesn’t see it that way. Currently on tour opening for Stapleton, when asked in a recent interview what he thought about Chris, Marty responded,
“He’s flying the flag for the entire culture of country music right now, and he’s doing it in a very real way. It’s him and three guys on stage. And he’s delivering, it’s not bells and whistles. It’s not bullshit country music, it’s not anything other than true, authentic music coming from his heart and soul.”
Marty Stuart also said, “I think his authenticity is what’s speaking to everybody. In Nashville, they always say, ‘It all begins with the song.’ The song that introduced Chris to the world, ‘Tennessee Whiskey,’ it was a good song 40 years ago, it was a good song when George Jones cut it, it was good when David Allen (sic) Coe cut it. But Chris introduced it in a way where the whole world got behind it, and that’s beautiful. He’s a song man.”
As the spotlight grows on an artist, so does the scrutiny. And as the best-selling country artist over the last two years, as well as the most decorated with awards, the spotlight on Chris Stapleton is blazing. But country fans shouldn’t overlook the fact that what he’s done as a non-radio country artist is remarkable. His peers certainly do, from major superstars like Luke Bryan, all the way to guys like Marty Stuart. No single artist will be ideal specimen of a country music savior to deliver the genre out of its current creative malaise. But some help much better than others, and Chris Stapleton is most certainly one of them.