Chris Stapleton, Justin Timberlake Re-Create Historic Country Moment

If you asked me point blank what the single most important moment in country music over the last ten years has been, without any hesitation, I would answer conclusively that it was Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake performing “Tennessee Whiskey” at the CMA Awards in November of 2015. Hands down.

So many different threads and narratives can be drawn from that specific moment, and the reverberations were so earth shaking, they still can be felt today. Appreciate, that the moment happened seven years ago this November, and still, just this week, “Tennessee Whiskey” was the 5th most streamed song in all of country music, and its parent album Traveller also remains one of the most popular titles in all of country, in part due to the strength of “Tennessee Whiskey.”

Yes, Chris Stapleton’s version brings a distinctly R&B/classic soul flavor to the classic country track, but appreciate that this is a song that was written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove in the early 80s, was recorded by David Allan Coe in 1981, and was re-recorded and became a hit for George Jones in 1983. It is a 40-year-old classic American country song that is still as relevant today as it was during the Reagan Administration, if not more.

Let’s also remember that the song’s approach can also be tied right back to the modern country music insurgency. It was Chris Stapleton listening to Sturgill Simpson’s magum opus Metamodern Sounds in Country Music that motivated him to shelve all the other stuff he’d been recording, look up producer Dave Cobb, and record Traveller and “Tennessee Whiskey” live in studio. In fact, it was Dave Cobb who suggested Stapleton cut the song.

When Chris Stapleton took the stage of the CMA Awards on November 4th, 2015, he was in no way a household name. Few mainstream country listeners even knew who he was. Traveller was barely raising a blip on the charts, and “Tennessee Whiskey” was an afterthought. But piggy backing off the star power of Justin Timberlake, that one performance was like a dagger in the heart of the Bro-Country era, which reigned supreme at that time. Bro-Country wouldn’t die right there, but it’s been slowly bleeding out ever since.

On Friday night, June 10th, Chris Stapleton was in Los Angeles, playing at the legendary Forum in Inglewood when Justin Timberlake stepped on the stage with him to re-create that moment, turning in an epic, 12-minute version of the song to close out the show. It brought the house down, and reminded many of that moment back in 2015.

With everything else going on in the world—including in country music—it’s easy to forget just how important that moment was. The purists and Americana types will cast it off as superfluous. But even here seven years later, it’s hard to not assess that what we saw that night was magic, and something that helped reshape the direction of country music more than any other moment we’ve experienced in recent memory, and that we may experience ever.

Chris Stapleton, Justin Timberlake, and their particular version of “Tennessee Whiskey” may not be for everyone in country music. But it’s something that has most certainly affected everything else in country music, and in ways that are still resonating, and that may not stop anytime soon. In that moment, those two men helped save country music, even if it took a little R&B flavor to do it.

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