Chris Stapleton and wife, Morgane Stapleton, at CMA Awards 2015
The most astute readers of this blog will remember that I recognized Chris Stapleton in a post back in June: “The Latest in Alt-Country.” Therein, I said that his debut album, Traveller, will be on the year-end best album lists, “I guarantee it.” To be honest, I couldn’t guarantee it; I was just being hopeful and buoyed by the critical acclaim. But, now, Traveller is the #1 album this week across all markets, and it is currently sold-out on Amazon if you want a physical copy. Forbes is reporting that the album jumped by 6,000%! What happened?
The CMA’s happened. But before I continue talking about the CMA’s, you need to watch this performance at the Grand Ole Opry from a couple years ago:
That is Stapleton singing the Waylon Jennings’ classic, “Amanda.”
Now that you have been properly introduced to Chris Stapleton, let’s continue…
The Country Music Association Awards is the longest-running and most prestigious awards show for country music. In the greatest of ironies, the current chairman of the CMA is Gary Overton, who was head of Sony Nashville at the time when he was widely quoted and scolded for saying, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” Tell that to Chris Stapleton. Or Aaron Watson. Or Jason Isbell. Or Blackberry Smoke. They all had #1 country albums this year without any radio support. The times they are a-changin.
I was pleasantly surprised when it was announced that Stapleton received three nominations: Best New Artist of the Year, Best Album of the Year, and Best Male Vocalist of the Year. I was pleased, but we have seen these gestures in the recent past. I am not aware of anyone seriously predicting that Stapleton would win any of his categories, with the slight possibility for album of the year. But it happened. First, best new artist. Second, best album. Third, best male vocalist.
When the hat trick was announced, I jumped off of my couch. I watched the whole thing live. I couldn’t believe it. Stapleton was clearly overwhelmed in the third acceptance speech. The widely-read SCM blog wrote:
What Chris Stapleton did was unprecedented, and historic. There have been plenty of 3-award sweeps in the history of the CMA’s, but never by such an underdog, and an unknown. …When Stapleton was accepting the Male Vocalist of the Year award, you could tell he was taking in what he knew might be the greatest moment of his life, and he promised he would take the honors very seriously.
The Chris Stapleton sweep was not the only thing that made the headlines. A few weeks ago, the CMA announced that Stapleton would be performing live at the awards show, alongside Justin Timberlake, for two full songs! The presence of Timberlake next to Stapleton is actually not surprising. They are friends, and the Memphis-born Timberlake gave his Kentucky friend a huge boost in December of last year by tweeting:
REAL music fans already know. So, mainstream:
Remember that name… –jt
When the CMA gave Stapleton a performance slot in the show, he called Timberlake and asked if he would join him. He agreed, and the result is already being described as one of the great moments in the entire 49-year history of the CMA’s. While there were a few other good performances on Wednesday night’s broadcast (and some truly awful performances), the duo of Stapleton and Timberlake stole the show. It made everyone else look like amateurs. They started with “Tennessee Whiskey,” the third track from Stapleton’s album:
Most of the material on Traveller is original, but “Tennessee Whiskey” was originally recorded by country legends, David Allan Coe and George Jones, in 1981 and 1983 respectively. After performing “Tennessee Whiskey,” they transitioned to Timberlake’s “Drink You Away”:
Like I said, there was nothing else that could compare to these two performances. However, I did enjoy Kacey Musgrave’s “Dime Store Cowgirl,” Eric Church’s “Mr. Misunderstood,” and Reba McEntire’s set with Brooks & Dunn. There were a couple other highlights as well. Dierks Bentley was joined by violinist Lindsey Stirling to perform “Riser,” which is a song that I blogged about in July. Maddie & Tae, considering their age, did a good job with “Girl in a Country Song.” Also, it was a big night for Little Big Town with three wins.
But it was Chris Stapleton’s night. He dominated, and the Luke Bryan win for Entertainer of the Year was merely an afterthought. You can see the commentary from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. Does this mean that country music has found its savior? Probably not. I do not expect a massive reversal on country radio any time soon. But these things can happen piecemeal. Stapleton is an interesting character. His own music follows the high standards of the 70’s outlaw era which he loves, but he has been writing hit songs for some of Nashville’s biggest names. He is not a “purist.” He is willing to write or co-write pop-country singles, and this is partly why he is so well-known to those in Nashville.
This was a good week for country music. It was a good week for music lovers everywhere. The cynic can find ample room to make criticisms, but this is a time to celebrate. Congratulations to Chris and Morgane Stapleton and to Dave Cobb, the legendary Nashville-based producer of Traveller. The Georgia native, Dave Cobb, is someone you should know. He has produced for Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Shooter Jennings (Waylon’s son), and Whiskey Myers, among many others. That’s impressive.
Image: Chris Stapleton and wife, Morgane Stapleton, at CMA Awards 2015 – Taylor Hill, Getty Images (source)