Point: The Chris Stapleton Revolution Has (Slowly) Begun!
Chris Stapleton may not have overhauled the way country radio sounds, but he’s allowed a generation of musicians behind him raise their freak flags.
The soulful country balladeer brought hope that traditional country music would return to the radio. Perhaps even long-forgotten legends like Merle and Willie would get a shot against more progressive pioneers like Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt. That dream was not to be, and frankly, the format is better for it. We’ve maintained relevance because with deep roots we’ve continued to grow and change as a genre. Tall trees aren’t made better by getting hacked to their 1970s shape.
Immediately, and deservedly, fans and the media began to wonder who would be next to step through this gateway the bearded one seemed to build and walk through all on his own, while we were arguing about bros. Taste of Country even ran an editorial predicting the next Chris Stapleton. It’s unfair to say anyone is copying the “Fire Away” singer at this point, but the article argues that like-minded singers would breeze through a door busted down in a single night (in addition to performing “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Drink You Away” with Justin Timberlake, Stapleton unexpectedly won three CMA Awards in November 2015).
That hasn’t happened. Of the three we chose in that February 2016 op-ed, Drake White is the most Stapleton-like, with a similar appreciation for mixing blues, soul and bluegrass into his gritty brand of country music. He’s also got the voice, but not yet the recognition. Radio’s response to songs from his critically-acclaimed Spark album has been tepid. Mixing rock and blues into your brand of country has thus far proven to be an iffy proposition, unless …
… Your name is Maren Morris. It’s fair to ask if Morris would have found a place for her out-of-the-box songs on the radio if she’d arrived one year earlier. “My Church” was released to radio two months after Stapleton and Timberlake stomped a hole into Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, and during the 13 months that followed, it picked up several Grammys, CMA and ACM Awards while being lauded by every critical publication. That she’s yet to notch a Top 5 hit doesn’t seem to matter, and it shouldn’t. The revolution includes new ways for measuring success.
Brothers Osborne released their Pawn Shop album in January 2016 as well — the same month their song “Stay a Little Longer” hit No. 1. They’ve gone on to win two major awards and find the same critical praise as Morris and Stapleton.
(Shhh … don’t tell anyone, but the sibling duo’s current single “It Ain’t My Fault” is really a blues song).
(Double Shhh … about half the songs on Stapleton’s new From A Room Volume 1 album, out May 5, are really blues songs, as well.)
A generation of big-voiced, gritty country singers are lined up behind this group. Morgan Myles is itching for her chance. Taste of Country RISERS artist Aubrie Sellers bring songs so raw you reach for Neosporin. Midland aren’t gritty, but the “Drinkin’ Problem” trio are originals almost to a fault. Heck, even the silky-smooth, pop-friendly Brett Eldredge growls during his most recent single. If you’re among the Stapleton fans wondering why more like him haven’t emerged, you’re simply not looking.
Watch Aubrie Sellers Perform “Liar, Liar”
Songs that lean into the edges of country music are no longer caged album cuts, and the artists that sing them are no longer boxed in as only songwriters. One could argue singers in line with Sam Hunt‘s pop-friendly sound have Stapleton, a 2017 Country on the River headliner, to thank for expanding what is and isn’t a country song. Would “Craving You” by Thomas Rhett stand a chance if we hadn’t stretched the format?
Listing Hunt and Stapleton as equal influencers may make you cringe, but that’s the point. There is yin and yang now, not just yang. Our format had grown so narrow the next song on the radio was nearly predictable. With a single performance, this unlikely star busted through homogeny like the warrior in a famous 1984 ad for Apple computers:
Talent matters again. In fact, talent matters first and it comes in all shapes, sizes and hairdos.
The Boot and Taste of Country’s collaborative Point / Counterpoint series features staff members from the two sites debating topics of interest within country music once per month. Check back on April 20 for another installment.