Machismo is the ticket to a very successful country music career, and that’s the way it has always been. Despite myriad contributions from trailblazing female artists, it is always the men who are remembered, especially in country music. Just look at the reverence reserved for Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings, while the legacies of artists like Tammy Wynette and Kitty Wells are lauded much more quietly.
Perhaps more pointedly, there is a very specific kind of masculinity that dominates the current world of mainstream country. The “swagger” of Conway Twitty is no longer enough. Today’s male artists, like Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett and Cole Swindell, represent a hyper-masculine rendering of the classic good ol’ boy archetype. Bryan et al are playing a character — a working class man who, after a long day of physical labor, goes home and drinks a lot of beer while conning young women into having sex with him in the bed of his pickup truck.
But the themes of gender inequity go way back in country music, to well before the genre’s female artists were compared to a salad garnish. In fact, they’re exactly how “bro-country” not only became a thing, but a genre-dominating phenomenon. But then comes along a guy like Chris Stapleton, whose quiet masculinity stands in pretty stark contrast to the songs around which his male contemporaries have built their careers.
There’s almost a formula for how a (male) artist in country music can be incredibly successful and make a lot of money — put on a tight T-shirt and some jeans, talk a lot about drinking beer and trucks and banging chicks, and collect your check. But Stapleton, who plays Gas Monkey Live! tomorrow night, took a huge risk in not only choosing to record classic, traditional country music, but also in recording songs that sound nothing like what you’d hear on the radio.
Stapleton shocked much of the country music press when he was nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year by the Country Music Association. Stapleton’s competition is steep — Bryan, Blake Shelton, Eric Church and Dierks Bentley — and it’s pretty unlikely that he'll win. The nomination in the Best New Artist category was somewhat less of a surprise, but a quick look at this category indicates that Stapleton is perhaps the brightest among a new crop of artists, male and female, who will fundamentally change the face of the genre.
And it’s not for lack of masculinity or manliness (or whatever) in general, it’s just presented in a much less offensive way. Stapleton’s cover of George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey” and his own “More of You” from Traveller are both songs that could make a twangy slow jams playlist. Despite the fact there’s no talk of “sugar shakers” or working a woman out of her painted-on jeans, there's still an incredible amount of subtle sexiness in these tracks that recalls Twitty and George Strait.
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Perhaps it wouldn’t make much sense for the bearded guy in a beat-up, old cowboy hat to sing about being the popular guy who brings home all the girls, but let’s not forget that Stapleton certainly has that sound in his repertoire. As a working songwriter in Nashville, Stapleton and his co-writers won awards for Bryan’s “Drink a Beer.” In listening to Traveller, it’s clear that Stapleton’s detour into bro-country was just a way to pay the bills, and that he made a distinct artistic choice in a very different direction.
That risk has certainly paid off for guys like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, but it hasn’t gotten either of those guys nominated for major industry awards like Stapleton, which makes his success particularly curious. Hopefully, it’s just further evidence of the industry’s desire to shift back toward this kind of sound for country’s male artists. But maybe we’re being optimistic. After all, both Bryan and Florida Georgia Line have a song in the Billboard Hot Country Top 10 right now.
What the success of Stapleton does demonstrate, though, is that male country artists don’t have to dehumanize women in order to sell records. According to Billboard, Stapleton’s Traveller was the best performing album from a new artist in 2015, selling more than 30,000 copies in its first week. That number is, of course, dwarfed by the 345,000 copies of Kill the Lights that Luke Bryan sold in one week in August, but it is at least a glimmer of hope.
No matter how many strides women make in the genre, country is always going to have deep roots in the masculine, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But Stapleton and guys like him prove that you don't have to make women the butt of sexist tropes in order to crank out good, sexy love songs. If we can’t have something resembling full equality for male and female artists in country music, can’t we at least have that?