Heading into the final couple of months of 2015, there may not be a hotter name in country music among critics and distinguished listeners than Chris Stapleton. The long wait for his often-rumored and much-delayed debut album was finally rewarded on May 5th with the release of the Dave Cobb-produced Traveller, and fans were not let down. The album hit #1 on the Country Albums chart, and at the CMA Awards on November 4th, Chris Stapleton will be up for Album of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, and New Artist of the Year. Though these awards feel like an outside chance for Stapleton, with the respect he’s earned inside and outside the industry over the years, he’s not a bad pick as a Dark Horse. Meanwhile as media outlets begin to compile their end-of-year “Best Of” lists, you can expect to see Stapleton’s name right near the top.
Even though Stapleton has yet to become a huge commercial success, the secret is certainly out. Before 2015, “Chris Stapleton” was only a name known to industry insiders and certified country music nerds who either knew him from his days with the bluegrass outfit The SteelDrivers, or as a songwriter for some of the biggest names in the industry who happened to play solo gigs when he got a chance. Now the cat’s out of the bag, and Chris Stapleton is one of the leaders of a surging country music paradigm shift.
But in the summer of 2013, that wasn’t exactly the case. But that didn’t stop Stapleton from trying to speak up for country music.
At this point, it’s a common occurrence for an artist, country or otherwise, to come out with a quote significantly criticizing the quality or direction of the country genre. It happens with such a regular frequency these days that these quotes tend to blend into the background. But that wasn’t always the case.
On August 5th, 2013, in an interview with Rolling Stone‘s Patrick Doyle, legendary rocker Tom Petty laid down some pretty serious criticism of modern country, and it was taken like a shot across the bow of Music Row. And since Petty was not a country artist, the reach of his megaphone transcended genre, and opened up a much needed discussion in the midst of the advent and metastasizing of Bro-Country. Tom Petty’s quotes became known as his “Bad rock with a fiddle” quotes.
Well, yeah I mean, I hate to generalize on a whole genre of music, but it does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have. I’m sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but they’re just not getting the attention that the shittier stuff gets. But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?
But I hope that kind of swings around back to where it should be. But I don’t really see a George Jones or a Buck Owens or any anything that fresh coming up. I’m sure there must be somebody doing it, but most of that music reminds me of rock in the middle Eighties where it became incredibly generic and relied on videos. I don’t want to rail on about country because I don’t really know much about it, but that’s what it seems like to me.
You have to appreciate, these quotes set the internet on fire at the time, and launched what Saving Country Music later characterized as the Season of Discontent in country music. Florida Georgia Line jibbed back, “U think we care?” in response to Petty’s comments, Gary Allan chided that Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift were pop artists making a living in the country genre, and Zac Brown called Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” the “worst song ever.” And that was just the start. It was one huge country music brewhaha that lasted all the way into the late fall to the point where all the beefing in country music was comedic fodder for Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood during the CMA’s opening monologue that November.
But it all started with Tom Petty, and if you read beyond the criticism of country, it was almost like he was searching for a new generation of artists that would embody the old spirit of country music. He knew they were out there, he just didn’t know who they were, or where to look for them. “I’m sure there are people playing country that are doing it well,” he said. “I’m sure there must be somebody doing it.”
And in the midst of the firestorm that erupted after Tom Petty’s comments, semi-known songwriter Chris Stapleton wrote an open letter to Petty that enjoyed it’s own little viral sensation as part of the bigger interest in the Petty comments.
Dear Tom Petty,
I think it’s safe to say most modern country artists, including me, would list you as an influence. Your recent comments lead me to believe you see room for improvement in modern country music. I, for one, would like to see you put you money where your mouth is in a tangible way. So, in the interest of making Country music less “stty” (your words), I suggest a collaboration. I’m extending an open invitation to you to write songs with me, produce recordings on or with me, or otherwise participate in whatever way you see fit in my little corner of music. In the event that you actually read this and are interested, look me up.
At the time, some criticized Stapleton for what they perceived as defending bad country music, which would only make sense seeing how he was a songwriter for some of the very artists Tom Petty was criticizing. But instead, Stapleton actually read what Petty said, and saw he was looking for the people who could help country “kind of swing(s) around back to where it should be.” Tom Petty was likes scores of disenfranchised country fans who knew what was happening was wrong, but didn’t know where to turn for an alternative. Stapleton wanted to show Petty that not all modern country music was crap, and do so by collaborating with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. And by the way, this wasn’t being overly ambitious for Stapleton. At that time, he’d already written songs for George Strait and Adele.
In all likelihood, a Tom Petty / Chris Stapleton may never happen. But looking back now at Tom Petty’s comments two years ago, and Stapleton’s reaction and offer to Petty, it gives you a clear insight into how things are changing in country music, even amidst the incredible dreck that seems to get worse in the mainstream by the minute. In August of 2013, Chris Stapleton was a songwriter with a cult following. Today, he’s a nominee for the CMA Album of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, and New Artist of the Year. Tom Petty may have never found Stapleton, or read his humble little letter, but country music found “people playing country that are doing it well” to use Petty’s words. Petty was “sure there must be somebody doing it.”
Yes, and his name was Chris Stapleton.
And Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell, and Whitey Morgan, and Kacey Musgraves, and Mo Pitney, and of all people, even Eagles drummer Don Henley. And there’s many many more where they came from, and slowly but surely the rest of the music world is finding them.