Chris Stapleton’s Historic Country Moment, 5 Years Ago Today

Five years ago today—on November 4th, 2015—the biggest event and paradigm shift in country music occurred most certainly in the last 10 years, likely in the last quarter century, and possibly one of the biggest moments in the totality of country music history. And the fact that here five years later, the waves of momentum and influence that initially emanated from that moment are still resonating outward in reverberative circles is all the proof you need to validate that argument.

We’re of course talking about Chris Stapleton showing up to the 2015 CMA Awards as a virtual unknown aside from in songwriter and mostly independent country circles, and after having received virtually no radio play, and having sold very few copies of his debut solo record Traveller, he shocked not just the country music world, but the entire entertainment landscape when he walked away with New Artist of the Year, then Male Vocalist of the Year, and then Album of the Year for Traveller.

Not only that, Chris Stapleton also turned in what turned out to be the marquee performance of the evening, and one for the ages when he took the stage with close friend and early proponent Justin Timberlake, and performed the classic country song “Tennessee Whiskey” in a moment that subsequently went mega viral.

How big was that moment? It was so big that here five years later, both Traveller and “Tennessee Whiskey” are still two of the most successful pieces of media in country music at the moment. This week—the five year anniversary of that CMA moment, and five years and seven months after Traveller was released—the record still sits at #5 on the Billboard Country Albums chart. It sold another 11,000 copies and equivalents just last week, with songs from the album being streamed 10.5 million times, led primarily by “Tennessee Whiskey.” The song, and album, are now American standards.

It’s this level of continuing success that almost makes one want to resent Chris Stapleton, which is exactly what has happened with many independent music fans. As Chris Stapleton has admitted himself, all of this overwhelming mainstream success means he’s lost a lot of his street cred. You mention the name Chris Stapleton in certain circles, and you immediately hear grumbles, and comparisons to many of the worst mainstream country personalities. It underscores how sometimes the most devastating development for an independent artist is success.

But regardless, with the clear-eyed and wide-minded perspective we can now take on Chris Stapleton’s meteoric rise here five years removed from it, it’s unfair to consider it anything short of historic. What other seismic moments in the modern era rival what Chris Stapleton did? They’re mostly moments that much of history will judge as dubious, and a step in the wrong direction for the genre.

Perhaps you can point to the release and success of Jason Aldean’s song “Dirt Road Anthem” in 2011, which opened the door for country rap in the mainstream, and set the stage for the rise of Bro-Country. You could point to the breakout success of Florida Georgia Line and their song “Cruise” in 2012 which cemented Bro-Country’s grip, or Sam Hunt’s massive success with “Body Like a Backroad,” which at the time rewrote the history books for singles. But it’s probably Taylor Swift’s big wins at the 2009 CMA Awards when she walked away with Entertainer of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, and Album of the Year for Fearless to find a rival, or equivalent to what Chris Stapleton did in 2015.

You could also possibly point to Luke Combs, and all the incredible success he’s been enjoying lately, though it’s not really been centered around one awards show moment, or one song or album. This week, Luke Combs shattered even more records with the reboot deluxe edition of his latest album What You See Is What You Get, which is the all-genre #1 album at the moment, and just set a new streaming record for a country album with over 102 million online streams in one week.

But it was Chris Stapleton’s success that allowed someone like a heavy set songwriter such as Luke Combs to be able to find mainstream success with songs that don’t always fit the mainstream country norm. And the impact of Stapleton’s moment five years ago was not just a concern for the mainstream. Since Stapleton was a relative unknown at the time who had received no radio play, it caused thousands, maybe millions of music listeners to question what else the mainstream wasn’t serving them.

Soon droves of fans were turned onto other Dave Cobb-produced artists such as Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell (who helped to open the door for Stapleton), then Brandi Carlile and Colter Wall. All of a sudden an entire new world of possibilities was opened up to them, perhaps one where Stapleton wasn’t even their favorite artist anymore now that they had discovered new options.

On November 4th, 2015, Chris Stapleton stopped the Bro-Country phenomenon in its tracks (though it’s residue still lingers out there), helped install independent country at the very top echelons of country music, helped return country music back towards its roots, had a massive hit with a 35-year-old classic country song written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove, that had been previously-recorded by George Jones and David Allan Coe, on a landmark album he recorded live with his touring band comprised mostly of his own songs.

Grumbling traditionalists and independent fans like to downplay Chris Stapleton, and his 2015 CMA Awards moment specifically, as do Bro-Country fans and others who want to think of their favorite performer above Stapleton. But history will and should show that November 4th, 2015 was one of the most important days in the history of country music. And now with five years of reflection and further evidence, that’s very hard to impossible to refute.

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