Chris Stapleton’s CMA Sweep

November 7, 2015

Chris Stapleton and wife, Morgane Stapleton, at CMA Awards 2015

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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:

@ChrisStapleton

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 YorkerThe 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.

Chris Stapleton with wife and Dave Cobb

Morgane Stapleton, Chris Stapleton, and Dave Cobb at CMA Awards 2015

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Image: Chris Stapleton and wife, Morgane Stapleton, at CMA Awards 2015 – Taylor Hill, Getty Images (source)

5 Responses to “Chris Stapleton’s CMA Sweep”

  1. Joel said

    I listened to it on to Spotify after reading this, and to be honest I was a bit disappointed. The voice, the lyrics, and the arrangements and instrumentation are all good – but none of these things are exceptional. It’s solid enough, but doesn’t really stand out to me. The album also is just too long. I generally thought his voice fit better when he goes all out than in the ballads.

    But then, I’m not as big a country fan as you are. Anyway, it’s still much better than pop country and I’m glad he won over Kenny Chesney or whoever is big these days.

    • I’m glad you checked it out. I would encourage you to give it another few listens. I come at the album with 70’s country in mind, which is my favorite era for country, and Stapleton is superb. I have most of Waylon Jennings’ albums from the 70’s, and Stapleton’s album could easily fit in that catalog — and that’s setting the bar about as high as it gets. He’s able to find the right groove for this type of country, especially on songs like “Nobody to Blame” and “Traveller.”

      • Joel said

        Maybe I’ll give it another try.

        I guess maybe it’s just my tastes. The country I like most tends to be the kind with rich arrangements and mixing with other genres, while still staying authentic. It’s one of the reasons I love Emmylou Harris (own nine of her albums and counting). Stapleton is pretty straightforward.

      • Kevin Davis said

        That makes sense. I appreciate Emmylou Harris as well, but that’s not what Stapleton is going after. I do think there is some excellent texture and instrumentation on the album — once again, “Nobody to Blame” comes to mind.

        You would probably like Waylon’s early outlaw albums, like Lonesome, On’ry, and Mean (1973). That’s my favorite Waylon album, and it is richly textured in a way that you would appreciate. This culminates two years later in his masterpiece, Dreaming My Dreams, which is probably his most praised album.

        I see Stapleton and Cobb as following Waylon’s more stripped down and subdued subsequent albums, like Are You Ready for the Country?.

  2. […] are ten videos below. I did not include Chris Stapleton’s CMA performance because I already blogged about it and provided the videos there. This was the year of Chris Stapleton and nobody saw it coming. For […]

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