Look, Chris Stapleton is going to be just fine no matter what happens, so please don’t characterize this as being alarmist. If we learned anything from the crazy, historic run Stapleton’s debut record Traveller has been on, it’s that Stapleton doesn’t need no stinking label or radio play to get his music to the masses. Nobody but us music nerds had even heard his name until Stapleton appeared on the 2015 CMA Awards and virtually swept all the major categories, and now he’s outsold everyone in the mainstream and is lapping the field. Nearly 2 million records sold, and don’t give any credit to Mercury Nashville or corporate country radio. All credit goes to Chris Stapleton, a nudge forward by Justin Timberlake, a little magic from Dave Cobb, and the small group of players assembled to record Traveller live in Nashville’s Studio ‘A’.
But at this point, Mercury Nashville has so clearly bungled Chris Stapleton’s sophomore release, whatever it happens to be named, it’s embarrassing, and aggravating. On the eve of it being two years and one month since Stapleton released Traveller, and one month away from when the new album hits the shelves, and we still don’t even have a title. We don’t have a track list. We don’t have pre-orders or T-shirt bundles or autographed copies for the first 500 folks who sign up for the fan club online, let alone a lead single or a video. We’ve got nothing.
As I said last week heading into the ACM Awards, I had already been working on an article about how Mercury Nashville was bungling this Chris Stapleton release, but then I bit my tongue. When it was announced that Stapleton would be performing on the ACM’s, surely this would be the the opportunity, though greatly delayed even at that point, to release a lead single and album details, launch the pre-order, and get Chris Stapleton back in front of folks to make sure his next album is given every opportunity to succeed. But that didn’t happen.
Chris Stapleton performed the song “Second To Know” on the ACM’s, and we can assume this is one of the new songs on the new album. But it wasn’t a lead single. According to Stapleton, he picked that song because the ACM’s requested he play something “upbeat.” That in itself proves how little the ACM’s know about Stapleton, and country music. But Stapleton went along, because he’s a nice guy. Miranda Lambert I’m sure was told to play her latest single, or something “upbeat,” and she told the ACM’s to kiss her ass. She was playing the somber “Tin Man,” and acoustically without any accompaniment. That’s what you can get away with when you’ve won eight Female Vocalist of the Year trophies in a row.
The morning after the ACM Awards, we were all geared up to perhaps stream the new song on Spotify, and lay our $34.99 down on the T-shirt + CD bundle. But there was nothing. Appreciate that for most mainstream releases, or even independent release, they’re preceded months ahead by a lead single to help create anticipation for the record. The details of a record are slowly reveled in the months in advance to build even more interest. Six weeks out at the latest, the pre-order launches to start accumulating sales so when the release week comes, you make headlines with the amount of units moved. For Chris Stapleton, we still have nothing.
Not that we expected much different from Mercury Nashville. They’ve bungled the Chris Stapleton phenomenon at every turn. When Stapleton made country music history with Justin Timberlake on the CMA Awards stage in 2015 and it sent Stapleton’s version of “Tennessee Whiskey” rocketing up the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart to #1, Mercury should have immediately pulled whatever flailing single they weren’t really pushing to radio anyway, and served “Tennessee Whiskey” to mainstream radio immediately. It would have been a massive radio hit. The public appetite was so rich for it, the fat cat radio programmers would have no choice but the add it to playlists. Hell, it may have even crossed over to pop with Timberlake’s involvement, and then we would have heard a song first popularized by George Jones and David Allan Coe back on the radio.
But getting the uninspired humps who work at the corporate offices of country music’s major labels to do anything and be fleet of foot about it is impossible. It takes them six months to do anything. They’re slaves to their formulaic and outmoded procedural bureaucracy, and their focus group data. “Forget that ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ has become a cultural phenomenon, our 9 month-old focus group research tells us ‘Nobody To Blame’ should be the second single,” they say. And so they release it, no questions asked, to ultimately fail, while a huge opportunity passes them by.
Mercury Nashville doesn’t just need to get this new release right for Chris Stapleton, they need to get it right for country music. Despite itself, and incredible mishandling, Music Row has been bestowed an incredible gift in Chris Stapleton. But they’re so tied to the corporate radio promotional model, and so reliant on their tired timelines and formulas, they don’t know what the hell to do. They’re paralyzed. You would think with the money they’re poised to make off the new Stapleton record, perhaps they would ask for help, bring in a manager from another part of Universal Music Group that specializes in non-radio releases. Instead, they sit on their hands.
At some point, we will get an album title, pre-orders, a “single,” and maybe even a video from this new Chris Stapleton album. In fact it may be tomorrow, or the next day. It better be, because time is running out. And folks will come here to laugh and say, “See, there’s nothing wrong here Trig, quit being so alarmist.” But the damage is already done. Mercury Nashville has failed to go through even the most basic, fundamental steps of an album release to ensure the most successful roll out possible. I still expect Chris Stapleton’s sales floor to be 150,000 units for this new album, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he moves as many as half a million in the first week … depending on if or how Mercury Nashville rallies to at least give this album release a respectable roll out. But whatever the eventual number is, it could have been better if they had any sort of salient plan.
Chris Stapleton will be fine, because he’s Chris Stapleton. But as far as I’m concerned, let the record show that the release of Chris Stapleton’s second record was botched from the start, whatever the title of it may be.