Last Wednesday night, the uber-talented and mightily bearded Chris Stapleton sent shockwaves through the country music world when he collected three CMA Awards. By taking home the trophies for Best New Artist, Album of the Year and, perhaps most surprising, Male Vocalist of the Year — an award dominated in recent years by A-lister Blake Shelton — millions of people suddenly discovered Stapleton’s soulful croon. Twenty-four hours on from what many were quick to deem the rumblings of a seismic shift in modern Top 40 country music, every social media channel available to knee-jerking country music lovers was filed with one of two sentiments, and there seemed to be little room in between.
One faction of tweeters could be seen asking #WhoIsChrisStapleton, while the other frenetically proclaimed that Stapleton’s victory was a meaningful one, signaling a new era in modern country music. Many Facebook posts and tweets even dubbed Stapleton country music's “savior.” Of course, Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan, two acts largely at the epicenter of the sophomoric sounds dominating radio airwaves these days, took home major awards, too. Saving us from that is a tall task for anyone. And it’s likely impossible, which is genuinely okay.
For those keeping score at home with your Insecure Elitist Country Music Fan Membership Kit, that makes Stapleton at least the third artist in a year (it’s getting more difficult to keep track) to be crowned the Musical Messiah by the vocal minority who hardly claim to give two craps about mainstream country music under normal circumstances. Now, the Nashville stud who has presumably made a small fortune writing songs for – gasp! – Luke Bryan and Tim McGraw, among others, is the chosen one who will finally rescue us fans of “good country music.” Well, Stapleton may very well save at least the keyboard warriors with an inferiority complex who are somehow still without an Internet connection.
As 2014 crawled to a close, Sturgill Simpson, as heartening a success story as we’ve seen lately, was making glorious old-school noise as the appointed Musical Messiah by selling out everywhere he played and landing on more critics' best of 2014 lists than almost any country artist in the previous decade. This past July, the gifted, versatile Jason Isbell, who may or may not be a country artist, joined the not-as-exclusive-as-one-might-think Musical Messiah club when he triumphantly topped the sales charts on the folk, rock, and yes, country album charts when his stellar Something More Than Free saw its release. Without question, the feat itself, as well as the attention Isbell received for it, was a great occasion, and a warm, fuzzy moment for those of us who have followed him since his days as a young drunk in the Drive by Truckers. But he didn’t save anything by impressively topping all of those charts, because there wasn’t anything in need of saving.
Country music doesn’t need saving. Country music isn’t dead, nor is it being sponge-bathed in a Nashville ICU ward barely hanging on before a bro in heavily embroidered jeans pulls the plug on its existence. What we hear on mainstream country radio would certainly see a spike in quality with a good bit of tunes from Stapleton, Isbell and Simpson, not to mention Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Aaron Watson and Ashley Monroe. Few without ear damage would argue against that. But Top 40 radio isn’t the home of these artists. By taking a look at the past few decades, it’s easy to see that country radio, while it has seen better days, hasn’t ever been a true home of the maverick artists we are celebrating so much this year.
There have been encouraging, applause-worthy “wins” in several areas where unique country music artists can be seen marching directly toward infiltrating the formulaic mainstream consciousness. But for those Insecure Elitist Country Music Fans who need to be told in no uncertain terms: The revolution will not be televised, nor will it ever trend on Twitter for an extended amount of time, because there won’t be a revolution at all. There never really has been, and there’s no reason to hope for one, or suggest one is nigh.
In the late 1950s and into the '60s, Johnny Cash’s raw, rockabilly style brought new fans to country music as he boldly straddled the line between edgy outsider and marketable commodity. The outlaw movement of the 1970s gave rise to a style of inventive, boundary-pushing country music that has inspired generations of brilliant talent, including those alleged saviors of 2015. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, among several others, offered an edgy alternative to the lush, orchestral crooning that dominated the airwaves at the time. The leisure suit-loving “countrypolitan sound” was to the '70s country music industry what the mini van-approved pop styling of Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts or Sam Hunt is today. And it excelled as the prevailing popular flavor for years, even as Willie, Waylon and the Boys made their mark in a different manner. That outlaw style of music, as successful on every level as it was, only made the country music universe brighter and more exciting, but it didn’t save it from some sort of meteor-inspired extinction that never came anyhow.
In the mid-1980s, during what Steve Earle has since dubbed “The Great Credibility Scare,” many labels started opening up to more thoughtful artists such as Earle, Lyle Lovett and Dwight Yoakam, each of whom became insurgent radio stars, even as smooth but benign acts such as Lee Greenwood, Steve Wariner, Restless Heart and even the Pointer Sisters had massive country commercial success. In the 1990s, the airwaves were a bit safer to listen to, really. Prior to Tim McGraw throwing synth into his hit singles and the adult contemporary crossover of Shania and Faith, things weren’t nearly as pop-flavored and slick as they had been or would become on the whole. The Mavericks, a genre-bending band that’s now a part of the Americana scene’s vanguard and ignored by the country music industry and its consumers currently, won multiple ACM and CMA Awards as Top Vocal Group in the mid-1990s. At the time, the Raul Malo-led group’s wins were viewed as progressive and as a sign that industry insiders, radio programmers and country audiences were embracing diversity in many ways. That didn’t last long.
So many decades' worth of formulaic, pop-inflected country music being infiltrated by the occasional party crashers should show us all that not much is likely to change anytime soon when it comes to the overall nature of the mainstream country music marketplace. Bad, disposable country music has always existed, and one-hit wonders have always managed to find their way to the top of the charts. A few encouraging signs of larger groups of fans accepting artists who offer music that isn’t formulaic or idiotic doesn’t mean much will change. And it really doesn’t need to, especially here in North Texas. If you don’t want to hear the latest single from Jason Aldean or Thomas Rhett, it’s easy to click over to KHYI 95.3 The Range or KFRW 95.9 The Ranch instead of the couple of Top 40 country stations we have in town.
Why quibble over what videos CMT plays, which songs are most commercially popular or, ironically, which artists win the awards most music snobs have long scoffed at? The best part is, no one has to settle for anything less than what he or she deems the best. In the 1980s, we couldn’t click a couple of buttons to hear Whitey Morgan, Daniel Romano or Sunny Sweeney on an impulsive whim. Never again will indie artists such as Caitlin Rose, Jason Eady or Pokey LaFarge have to win big at awards show to win new fans.
Arguably the occasion worth celebrating the most in country music this year was the unlikely commercial success of Django & Jimmie, the album from Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard which landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Country charts upon its release in June. Even more important, it’s a truly fine album from two legends who have long since stopped caring about awards and whether any of their songs get played on country radio.
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On Sunday, Haggard performs at Gas Monkey Live!, the very venue Stapleton played just a few days before he became a trending hashtag. In 2012, we at the Observer had the honor of speaking to Mr. Haggard, and he was quick to let us know that the Internet will help people get to the best artists, or at least the musicians they want to hear. He was right, and no one should be surprised by it. For those who want a savior to come in and open the ears of millions of Luke Bryan fans to a more substantive form of country music, take the Hag’s advice and put your efforts into supporting the artists you enjoy and identify with.
Besides, all Haggard did was make enduring music that captured the public’s fancy and has stood the test of time, and his catalog has long been regarded as one of the greatest collections in American music history. He didn’t save a damn thing. If Merle Haggard never “saved” country music, then I’m not sure why we should expect anyone else to.