Counterpoint: Chris Stapleton’s Success Does Not Equal a Revolution
One person does not a revolution make. Carrie Underwood‘s ascent from unknown American Idol contestant to superstar does not mean that every TV singing competition winner will make it big. The critical acclaim that Brandy Clark has earned as an artist herself after spending years as a songwriter does not mean that songwriters-turned-artists will all find success. And Chris Stapleton receiving attention and accolades from the mainstream portion of the country music industry does not mean that the complaints about country radio not playing a diverse set of sounds are suddenly moot.
Stapleton deserves every bit of the love he’s received since the release of his freshman album, Traveller, in May of 2015, no doubt, and it’s wonderful to see his fellow artists and songwriters be excited for him, and for a wider swath of country music fans to learn about a talent that the Nashville community knew needed to be heard. But giving Stapleton a bunch of trophies and putting his singles into rotation, and then saying, “That’s good enough, right?” is … well, not good enough.
"One person does not a revolution make."
In the same way that Aaron Watson‘s 2015 album The Underdog, proved that an independent artist could have immense success on the charts, Stapleton’s rise proves that there’s room in the mainstream country scene for — and a desire to hear — artists with a vibe that’s less Florida Georgia Line or Jason Aldean and more outlaw country-meets-blues (just wait’ll you hear the licks on From A Room, Volume 1!). And yet, only one of Stapleton’s songs (“Nobody to Blame”) has reached the Top 10 on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart.
Happily, Stapleton’s success, specifically during and following the the 2015 CMA Awards, helped pave the way for some of the newer artists who are currently rising up through the country music ranks. Maren Morris released her debut single, “My Church,” in January of 2016 — about two months after Stapleton’s big night at the 2015 CMAs — and took it to the Country Airplay Top 10 (No. 9); additionally, Morris’ freshman album, Hero, hit No. 1, following its release in June, and she’s won an armload of CMA, ACM and Grammys trophies in the past 16 months. The Brothers Osborne, who released their first album, Pawn Shop, around the same time that Morris dropped her debut single, earned Vocal Duo of the Year at both the 2016 CMAs and 2017 ACMs, and they took their single “Stay a Little Longer” to No. 2 on the Country Airplay chart.
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And while all of that is wonderful, neither John and TJ Osborne nor Morris has yet to hit No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart (though “Stay a Little Longer” did hit No. 1 on Mediabase); heck, neither act has a second Top 10 single. Kacey Musgraves, who released her first single in 2012, is in a similar situation: She has two No. 1 albums to her name and a handful of awards wins, yet she’s notched only one Top 10 single (“Merry Go ‘Round,” Musgraves’ debut single, peaked at No. 10 on the Country Airplay chart).
And then there are artists such as the aforementioned Clark, Lori McKenna and Natalie Hemby — all songwriters who, as artists themselves, have a raw sound similar to Stapleton’s (not to mention, they’re women, and it would be lovely to hear a few more of them on the radio). Clark is the only one of the three to have officially released singles to radio, but of the five she’s put out, not a one has cracked the Country Airplay Top 10 (and only 2016’s “Girl Next Door” made it into the Top 40, peaking at No. 39).
So, how about acts such as Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and Jason Isbell? They trend toward an Americana / alt-country sound, yes, but so does Stapleton. Satellite radio listeners may recall hearing Price’s “Four Years of Chances” mixed in among pop-country fare in early 2016, but not so much anymore. Simpson’s most recent album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, earned the 2017 Grammys trophy for Best Country Album, yet listeners would be shocked to hear anything from it on mainstream country radio. If those stations find listeners excited to hear the singles from Stapleton’s blues- and soul-leaning From A Room, Volume 1, though, wouldn’t it make sense to try out some of Simpson’s similarly influenced work?
"Country music fans deserve to hear a variety of options and form their own opinions … and it shouldn’t be an intense process."
Let’s not be naive: In this digital day and age, mainstream country music radio — and radio in general — is not the only way to success … but it’s a key part of earning a wider audience. And, listeners deserve to hear a variety of options and form their own opinions; they can, of course, use social media, YouTube, Spotify and so on to find new artists who speak to them, but it shouldn’t have to be that intense of a process.
Stapleton, Morris, the Brothers Osborne, Musgraves and the like have proven that country music fans want to hear what they, and others like them, have to say. Why not give it to them?
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 May 20 for another installment.
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