In January of 2016, Saving Country Music published an article explaining how 2016 Could Be 1975 All Over Again in country music—how an upsurge in more traditional and substantive talent and music could really take hold in country, from the independent realm to the mainstream.
And that is exactly what we’ve seen as 2016 has progressed. From the success of Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton, to the surge of new mainstream traditionalists like Jon Pardi, Mo Pitney, and William Michael Morgan, to new female artists like Margo Price, we’re seeing the re-emrgence of music that reminds us of country music’s glory days of the past after years of suffering under Bro-Country oppression.
But how did we get here? Below is a timeline of some of the most significant moments when it was clear that quality country music was on the upswing. Though Bro-Country is far from vanquished and there’s still plenty of songs and artists to be ashamed of calling themselves “country,” clearly major strides have been made, and 2016 is the year the tide has turned. Though many smaller events and victories most certainly went into change of momentum, here are some of the events that will be indelibly marked into country music history, and events we never though would be possible years ago:
NOVEMBER 3RD, 2013 – George Strait Wins the CMA for Entertainer of the Year
It’s the height of Bro-Country, and who walks away with the biggest award in the entire industry? The 61-year-old George Strait who hasn’t had a big hit in years, and is struggling with album sales. Strait’s win had partly to do with his massive farewell tour, and partly as a parting gift for one of the most important and successful acts in country music history. But it was also a statement by the CMA voters.
Luke Bryan was the presumed winner going into the awards, and he would ultimately walk away with the distinction the next two years. But not before King George was given one last hurrah. Clearly voters were sensing that Bro-Country had gone too far. A vote for George Strait was a vote for authentic country. This was the first sign that not just within the country fandom, but within the industry and artists themselves, there was the bubbling up feeling that country music needed to return to its roots.
Strait’s win was nothing less than shocking. It was the first Entertainer win for a traditional country artist in nine years. The last time George Strait had won the distinction was 22 years prior.
George Strait would go on to win Entertainer of the Year at the ACM Awards in April of 2014 as well.
MAY 13TH, 2014 – Sturgill Simpson releases Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Upon the release of Metamodern Sounds, the album performed well, debuting at at #11 on the Top Country Albums chart, and #59 on the all-genre Billboard 200. But it’s what would happen afterwards as an organic groundswell emerged behind Sturgill that would significantly impact country music all the way to the top of the mainstream. Praise poured in for the record from many sectors of the music universe, and as news continued to spread, the longevity of Metamodern Sounds on Billboard’s Country Albums chart became the big story. Sturgill Simpson was selling out clubs, and even mainstream artists like Jake Owen and Keith Urban were touting Sturgill.
One of the biggest impacts of Metamodern Sounds is that it inspired Chris Stapleton to record his album Traveller in a similar way, and with the same producer, Dave Cobb, who was enjoying his own upsurge in attention through the success of Sturgill and Jason Isbell. The impact Chris Stapleton and Traveller had (see below) was directly influenced by Metamodern Sounds.
Though Sturgill Simpson has not enjoyed the same industry accolades as Chris Stapleton, or the radio play of new traditionalists like Jon Pardi and William Michael Morgan, he helped make it all possible by proving there was appeal for more traditional country music out there.
FEBRUARY 2015 – Blackberry Smoke and Aaron Watson Score #1 Albums
On February 18th, it was confirmed that Blackberry Smoke was the first independent band in the modern era to top Billboard’s Country Albums chart with their record Holding All The Roses. No longer did Music Row have a monopoly on the albums charts, and this was driven home the very next week when independently-signed Texas country artist Aaron Watson pulled off the same feat, scoring a #1 album himself with The Underdog.
Aaron Watson’s #1 came in the aftermath of Sony Records Nashville CEO Gary Overton saying, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.”
Watson’s response after officially being rewarded the #1 record was, “My name is Aaron Watson. I’m not played on country radio. And I have the #1 record in country music this week. I do exist.”
NOVEMBER 4TH, 2015 – Chris Stapleton Wins Big at the CMA Awards
The 2015 CMA Awards shocked the country music world as Chris Stapleton walked away with the CMA’s for New Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Male Vocalist of the Year—all the awards he had been nominated for. Very few, if anyone believed Chris Stapleton had any chance to sweep the awards, let alone win any of them. His nominations had been seen as a coup in itself. But similar to when George Strait made it onto the ballot for Entertainer of the Year in 2013, CMA voters voted their conscience, and this relatively unknown songwriter and performer in the mainstream became country music’s next superstar.
Above and beyond Chris Stapleton’s big wins, his performance with Justin Timberlake on the George Jones song “Tennessee Whiskey” may go down as one of the most significant performances in CMA history, or country music history. It catapulted Stapleton to the top of the national consciousness, and made “Tennessee Whiskey” a #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
Chris Stapleton would repeat his sweep of all the major awards he was nominated for in April 2016 at the ACM Awards.
MARCH 24TH, 2016 – Chris Stapleton Goes Platinum
It was one thing for Chris Stapleton to have a huge night at the 2015 CMA Awards. It was another for Stapleton to sustain that momentum throughout an entire year, and counting. In March of 2016, his debut album Traveller was certified Platinum after strong, sustained sales that have still not died off at the making of this timeline. Even in October of 2016, Stapleton is regularly #2 or #3 on the Country Albums charts, only outdone by brand new releases by big-named artists.
And who knows how long it could continue. If Stapleton wins again at the 2016 CMA Awards, and the 2017 ACM’s, he could easily stretch his winning streak to a second year.
APRIL 9TH, 2016 – Margo Price Plays Saturday Night Live
Though some believe the distinction came way too early for the burgeoning traditional country songstress, getting a performance slot on Saturday Night Live proved that the flood gates had burst open on the traditional country resurgence, and even national outlets that don’t regularly feature country music were looking to get in on the action.
Margo Price, along with many other authentic country and roots musicians, continue to play nationally broadcasdt late night talk shows with a greater frequency than ever before, speaking to the growing appeal of music not found on the radio, and from a more independent mindset.
JUNE 14TH, 2016 – Lori McKenna’s “Humble and Kind” Goes #1 via Tim McGraw
The song “Humble and Kind” going #1 on the country charts was significant for a number of reasons. Though it was recorded by Tim McGraw, the song was written solely by songwriter and performer Lori McKenna. “Humble and Kind” was the first solo-written song to go #1 on the country charts in four years, and happened right as Lori McKenna was releasing her own solo album The Bird and The Rifle. At the time, it was also the only solo-written song out of the entire 60-song Country Airplay chart.
Though the song may have been a bit more adult contemporary than traditional country, it was still more traditional country than anything that had topped the charts in recent memory, while helping to put an important female artist on the map. When “Humble & Kind” went #1, it opened the door for any well-written and more adult-oriented song to go #1 on the country charts.
SUMMER 2016 – Jon Pardi Earns #1’s for California Sunrise and “Head Over Boots”
The theory that a new generation of traditional country artists in the mainstream could have a major impact on the genre comes to fruition when Jon Pardi first earns a #1 album for his most recent release California Sunrise in June, and then a #1 song for “Head Over Boots” in August. Along with William Michael Morgan and Mo Pitney, Pardi is seen as part of a traditional country resurgence in the mainstream. Though perhaps not as traditional or critically-acclaimed as Morgan or Pitney, nonetheless Pardi’s pragmatic approach to more traditionally-oriented country opened the doors for the later success of William Michael Morgan’s single “I Met A Girl.”
As Music Row saw the erosion of appeal for Bro-Country, it began to hedge its bets by signing traditional country artists, and allowing them to release more traditionally-oriented material. And with Jon Pardi, it paid off.
OCTOBER 4TH, 2016 – William Michael Morgan Earns #1 for “I Met A Girl”
Though George Strait and Chris Stapleton had broken down major barriers when it came to industry awards, and the country album charts had finally been fairly integrated with traditional country talent, the last holdout was corporate country radio. Despite all of Chris Stapleton’s successes, a radio hit still alluded him, and you still couldn’t hear more traditional artists like Sturgill Simpson on the radio at all.
But even this barrier was broken down when William Michael Morgan earned a #1 radio single for his debut song “I Met A Girl.” This was arguably the first truly traditional country song to crest the country airplay charts in the last five to seven years, and from an artist that is undeniably traditional, and brand new. Jon Pardi and Tim McGraw opened the door with their #1 singles that veered towards more traditional country, and now William Michael Morgan was able to walk through it. And who knows who might be next?