You could say that country fans are too damn picky. From George Strait’s arrival in the 1980s to the pop-heavy acts that pushed the genre past its breaking point in the early 2000s, fans have continually worried that, come the next dilution of the genre, it will disappear forever. So last night's 51st annual Academy of Country Music Awards should have felt like vindication for those fans.
Should have, anyway.
As award after award was handed to Chris Stapleton, the latest supposed savior of country music thanks to his brilliant Traveller, it was easy to feel like the genre had finally woken up to its missteps and was ready to start rewarding the good stuff. But in the end, all that praise — the Male Vocalist of the Year and the Song of the Year and whatever else (he copped four awards in total) — began to feel a little hollow.
As much as Stapleton deserved to win each and every award he took home last night, the feeling was that those victories were a calculated industry move from an Academy that’s tired of taking a spanking over “bro-country.” Despite the blockbuster financial success that country music has seen in the past few years, it’s been critically rough. The Academy’s members — largely industry types — must be tired of critics across the board telling them to stop propping up garbage.
Stapleton’s dominance at the ACM Awards was such a foregone conclusion that Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman said, “Thank you, Chris Stapleton, for not being a group,” as her band accepted the award for Vocal Group of the Year. He was such an obvious win in so many of these categories, in fact, that a loss in pretty much any of the categories would’ve drawn some serious ire.
You’re damn right that Chris Stapleton was the best male vocalist in country music in 2015. Of course “Fire Away” was the best song of last year. It’d sound like the best song of the millennium if you’d only heard “Huntin, Fishin and Lovin’” by Luke Bryan. These are all ridiculously easy differences to recognize, but is it only because he’s up against Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett and these other relentlessly mediocre artists? If twangy artists and solid songwriters were the norm in country — as they are in, say, folk or Americana — would Stapleton still rise to the top?
Probably so. Stapleton is a ridiculously talented guy, one who makes incredible music almost effortlessly. Problem is, though, that Chris Stapleton’s music doesn’t sound anything like Florida-Georgia Line’s or Thomas Rhett’s, both of whom also took awards home last night. The lines have been drawn, and the differences are stark. No one’s debating whether or not these two styles fit into the genre, but the question of how to reconcile their dual existences is much more complicated to answer.
More than that, country music is going to suffer. No one has ever suggested that artists need to sound exactly like Johnny Cash or Hank Williams or whoever else, but there are fundamental things that unite the genre.
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As long as its most popular artists continue to pull away from those things – the undying authenticity, the working-class storytelling, the pedal steel – Stapleton starts to look more and more like a pander to the people who have been hollering about the “murder on Music Row” since the 1990s. Or the 1980s.
Frankly, it’s a pander many fans are willing to accept. Who cares whether or not this is a strictly business move as long as we’re getting good tunes. That all sounds great until you realize that when the demand for those tunes starts to wane, and they all go back to salivating over the second coming of Florida-Georgia Line. It’s a risky proposition, one that could ultimately have devastating effects for some promising careers.
And that’s why last night’s awards were so problematic. It’s impossible to weigh Chris Stapleton’s wins against the fact that a majority of Academy voters somehow think that Jason Aldean is deserving of an Entertainer of the Year Award. That leaves the genre in as perilous a state as it has ever been, which is a real disappointment to fans (like myself) who thought that Stapleton’s success would foster some real, actual change.
Perhaps that was naive.