Okay Chris Stapleton, Now What?
How do you take your Chris Stapleton? Not quietly, if you’re like his fans and most in the country music industry.
Like the “Parachute” singer’s beard, opinions on Stapleton’s career and what he and his label “should” be doing are long and hairy. Single choice, his chances of maintaining a foothold on country radio and what he means for the future of the genre — it’s all Music Row fodder. The only one who hasn’t participated may be Stapleton himself.
Quietly he’s gone about his business. The 38-year-old doesn’t embrace media opportunities, but he doesn’t run from them, either. The CMA and ACM Awards come with massive, pre-show media junkets — two-days' worth of three-to-five minute Q&A sessions with stations, magazines and online news websites from across the country and overseas. The quality of these interviews varies. Some want to dig into his artistry. Others just want to try on his hat.
Then there’s Country Radio Seminar, an industry affair that involves another massive round of interviews and showcases and is placed smack dab in the middle of the others. Stapleton took them all in and was never caught complaining. He doesn't need the press. Nashville knows him as a top songwriter and the definitive voice of country music in 2016. If he never cut another album, he'd find work with a publisher.
He’s doing the work, even if he’s not likely to shill out free shows for major radio stations nationwide like many new artists do to build relationships.
If Stapleton’s star slowly begins to fade a la Jamey Johnson post-'In Color,' it’s more a reflection of our music culture than anyone’s fault.
“He just doesn’t fit!”
That was an oft-heard opinion from deejays and programmers on Stapleton’s “Nobody To Blame,” and indeed one hears the differences between his traditional love-lost songs and more contemporary rockers or R&B influenced grooves. Rarely has the divide between artists and programmers been more noticeable. Stapleton and singers on the other end of the sonic spectrum (Sam Hunt, for example) are extolling variety while radio fights to maintain consistency. That he doesn’t resemble anything else heard during morning drive is the point, his defenders would argue. “Parachute,” the second single post-CMA success, edges forward sonically, but his big bear-like voice still soars above anyone else’s. He’s a tough act to follow on stage, and on the radio.
Stapleton’s most loyal defenders question his record label’s single choices, and how they’ve introduced album cuts between singles. “Tennessee Whiskey” is the song he performed with Justin Timberlake at the CMAs, but Mercury Nashville chose “Nobody To Blame” instead. There could be a reason for this. Perhaps Timberlake wouldn’t allow a version of the song with his voice on it as he was planning his own country release? If this is the case, perhaps the label realized a Stapleton-only version would hit like decaf coffee after an unforgettable television experience.
“Fire Away” is another signature song from the album, but it was released only to streaming and satellite radio, and YouTube through a powerful music video that supports suicide prevention. The Grammy-winning “Traveller” was released in the spring of 2015, prior to the album’s release and six months beforeTraveller began an ascent to Platinum status. It was an unfortunate casualty of pre-CMAs apathy.
The remaining songs weave a compelling thread and compose one of the best country albums in years. Along with Dave Cobb, Stapleton set out to make an album, not a collection of songs he really likes that might do well on radio. Can you imagine “Whiskey and You” between anything from Kenny Chesney and Maddie & Tae? That's an old radio guy talking, but trust in the science that is creating daily playlists. The song is a bit of a dirge, but tucked between “Parachute” and “Nobody to Blame” it’s brilliance. The point is, it’s difficult to get mad about the lack of radio success (“Nobody To Blame” peaked near the Top 10) when he didn’t make the album with radio in mind in the first place. Measurables like chart position are overrated to an artist like Stapleton. Evaluating his success based on the number of No. 1 hits he notches would be like judging a freight train on how fast it goes from zero to 60 MPH.
Stapleton fans will cringe when they read this, but comparisons between the Kentucky native and Florida Georgia Line are crystal clear. Both came from nowhere and enjoyed their commercial peak at the front of their careers (yes, Stapleton was singing with rock and bluegrass bands prior to the CMAs, but his commercial career started on Nov. 4, 2015). Neither should be judged by the number of No. 1 hits, or Gold singles, even if FGL has lots of both. Both changed the format and opened doors for others like them to charge through. Both faced enormous expectations when it came to creating a follow-up album.
They’re practically brothers! Okay, we say that just to goad the country traditionalist. Clearly the dirt road each has followed to get to the pinnacle of country stardom is lined with different trees, but one could look at how FGL has maintained success post-“Cruise” while wondering how Stapleton will ever top Traveller. Commercially, he won’t. The next album won’t come with an element of surprise. He can’t be named a New Artist of the Year again (at least we think he can’t ... the awards show rules are sometimes slippery) and he can’t single-handedly swing the pendulum back toward music that matters like he did before.
If Stapleton’s star slowly begins to fade a la Jamey Johnson post-“In Color,” it’s more a reflection of our music culture than anyone’s fault. More and more, country junk food is easy to find and immediately gratifying. But if you want a meal that sticks and satisfies for a lifetime, you’ll need to dig deeper. The onus is on us the fans now, which is fine — because that’s how Stapleton became a star in the first place.
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