Some might think this will sound like a broken record or a tired topic, that all the Chris Stapleton praise and plaudits for his remarkable sales numbers have run their course. But the argument can be made that we’re still not making a big enough about what Chris Stapleton is accomplishing in country music right now, and without the aid of radio. Because what he continues to do now into the 3rd calendar year is nothing short of remarkable, and frankly, historic.
This is far beyond the tale of an overnight phenomenon like we saw transpire after the 2015 CMA Awards, which is now a solid 20 months in the rear view. This is far beyond beginner’s luck with his debut album Traveller. Chris Stapleton has been at the top of the Country Albums charts for so long now, we’ve just become used to it. We expect to see his mug beside the #1 marker, first with Traveller, and now with his latest From A Room: Vol. 1, like it’s commonplace for an artist that cuts his records in a week with his own band and writes his own material to completely dominate even while the radio ignores him. But it shouldn’t be expected. We shouldn’t get comfortable with it. We shouldn’t take it for granted. Because it is still a freak anomaly that isn’t supposed to happen, and a gift from the country music gods.
Chris Stapleton is the Adele of country music, rewriting all the rules about what we thought album sales in the streaming era were supposed to look like. Well into the 2nd half of 2017, and he is the only country music artist with a 2017 release that has been certified Gold by the RIAA. Neilsen just released the mid-year numbers, and of course From A Room: Vol. 1 takes on all comers and bests them. What’s even more surprising is what the #2 record in 2017 is. It’s Chris Stapleton’s Traveller—a record that was released now well over two years ago. In a couple of weeks, Traveller itself will have received enough sales to be certified Gold solely for its 2017 sales. It’s already been certified Double Platinum, and is the first record in country music to sell over 2 million copies since Luke Bryan’s 2013 album Crash My Party. Traveller has outsold Luke Bryan’s latest record Kill The Lights by nearly 500,000 units.
Alright so it’s total Chris Stapleton domination on the album charts if you zoom out. But what if you zoom in? This week Chris Stapleton is #1 and #2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart with From A Room and Traveller. The week before he was #1 and #4. The week before that he was #2 and #4, bested only by the debut of fellow Dave Cobb-produced Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound.
This is not supposed to happen. People are not supposed to buy albums anymore. Artist in country who do not receive radio play are not supposed to dominate any chart. Oh and by the way, for all of those who think this is solely an album phenomenon, you’ll notice on the Neilsen mid-year tallies that Chris Stapleton’s version of “Tennessee Whiskey” is #7 overall in country music for on-demand country songs streams with a total of nearly 80 million plays. Again, this isn’t for 2015 when Stapleton performed the song on the CMA’s with Justin Timberlake, or the 2016 aftermath. This is in 2017 folks. “Tennessee Whiskey” has received 80 million plays in 2017, underscoring how the moonshot Chris Stapleton hit is still soaring (and how stupid it was that the song was never released as a single).
Oh, and think about this: Chris Stapleton has yet another record to release this year if everything goes according to plan,—From a Room: Vol. 2. Yes ladies and gentlemen, if things hold form, there is a very real scenario where we may see the #1, #2, and #3 records atop the Billboard Country Albums chart all emblazoned with Chris Stapleton’s name. In fact, we should probably go ahead and expect that. This would put Stapleton in the company of Garth Brooks for one of the very few who’ve pulled off such a feat.
At some point, the streak will end. If you haven’t noticed, it’s been a little bit quiet on the Luke Bryan front for a while now, which means he’s likely rearing up for a new release for later this year. At some point Sam Hunt will have to release an album for his blockbuster single “Body Like a Backroad,” and that will blow away any sales numbers Chris Stapleton or anyone can else compile for weeks after the release. In fact looking at Nielsen’s mid-year numbers, it’s like the tale of two genres. As Stapleton dominates everything album related, there’s Sam Hunt stamping out all competition in the song tabulations. The cultural divide is alive and well in country music, but at least now both sides are represented.
Others will get their opportunities at the top of the albums charts as the calendar cycles through 2017. This is assured. But as they streak to the top and then slowly fade away, Chris Stapleton will still be were he’s been for going on two years now: right back at the top after the dust settles.
Charts and sales numbers are not the ultimate arbiter of quality. Time is. And time has proven that Chris Stapleton’s dominance on the album charts is no fluke. He’s a generational talent of country music, overcoming an obvious bias at radio, and insurmountable odds of an artist of his ilk. He might not be your ideal candidate for someone to turn the tables on Nashville’s Music Row, and he doesn’t seem to have any desire to stir the pot himself. But he’s proving there is a way forward in country music outside of the tired schemes, and beyond the formulaic pap that has burdened the industry for too long.
Chris Stapleton doesn’t need country radio. Country radio needs Chris Stapleton. They’re just too paralyzed by their own morassed and outmoded ways to realize it.