During the eight minutes that changed Chris Stapleton’s life last year, the mood inside the arena was electric. Onstage at the 2015 Country Music Association Awards in Nashville, Stapleton rocked out with his good friend, Justin Timberlake, to an exhilarating duet of “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Drink You Away.” Stapleton’s powerhouse drawl ricocheted through the venue as Timberlake radiated pure infectious energy. Keith Urban filmed it on his phone.
For millions watching on television, the moment was thrilling — and confusing. Who was this gravel-voiced, cowboy-hat-wearing singer next to Timberlake who not only had the top performance of the night but also beat out wildly popular acts for the categories of best new artist, male vocalist of the year and album of the year?
Viewers turned to the Internet for answers. By the end of the show, Stapleton was a trending Google search term, and his solo debut album, “Traveller,” released six months earlier, topped iTunes. In the week after, it rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and sold 153,000 copies. Until that point, it had sold 97,000.
The 2016 CMA Awards, airing Wednesday on ABC, mark the first anniversary of Stapleton’s epic night, one that still reverberates in the industry. Stapleton had been a well-known fixture in bluegrass music and Nashville songwriting circles for many years, but he was outside the pop-leaning world that dominates modern country, particularly on the radio. What did it mean that mainstream listeners apparently had a voracious appetite for his more traditional sound? Could he break down doors for other “old-school” artists? Or was he just an isolated phenomenon?
A year later, people in Nashville are still looking for answers. Stapleton, meanwhile, got five CMA nods this year, including for the coveted entertainer of the year prize. “Traveller,” recently certified double platinum, also won best country album at the Grammys. It’s the highest-selling country album this year and No. 4 in all genres of music, behind only Adele, Drake and Beyoncé.
“I don’t think people have stopped talking about it,” said Brandy Clark, the singer-songwriter who opened on tour for Stapleton this summer. “The biggest game-changer was for him . . . but a rising tide raises all ships. So I think, even more than country music, it was just a win for music.”
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When you talk to people in country music, the biggest change anyone can describe is an intangible “feeling” — the buzz that still exists after seeing a nice, humble guy like Stapleton, 38, have a career-changing night with an authentic, soulful moment, forgoing the literal smoke-and-mirrors spectacles that often accompany award-show performances. It’s inspiring for anyone in the competitive Nashville music scene, where talented songwriters can quietly toil for years.
“It wasn’t about a big look or big effects,” said CMA chief executive Sarah Trahern. Weeks before the show, Stapleton called his pal Timberlake, a Tennessee native, and asked whether he wanted to perform. “It was two wonderful, talented artists getting together, and the sheer excitement and chemistry of music.”
For Stapleton — a 15-year Nashville veteran who played in the Grammy-nominated bluegrass band the SteelDrivers and wrote hit songs for top artists before landing a solo major record label deal — it was fortuitous that his biggest moment happened to be in front of about 14 million TV viewers.
However, Stapleton hasn’t made a significant impact on one major area: commercial radio.
Known as the primary avenue for country artists to build a mainstream career, country radio has been taken over by male-dominanted party hits, commonly centered around hanging out with pretty girls and drinking beer on the back of truck tailgates. Nothing on the thoughtful, emotional “Traveller” album stood out as an obvious radio single.
By all accounts, Stapleton (who was unavailable for comment) didn’t really care. For marketing, his label relied on word of mouth and critical praise, along with his growing touring fan base and TV appearances, such as a spot in the final weeks of “Late Show With David Letterman.”
After the CMA Awards, Dave Spencer, the music director and afternoon drive personality in WBKR (92.5 FM) in Owensboro, Ky., posted a video that called the radio absence of artists such as Stapleton “embarrassing.” He implored other country stations, particularly those in big cities that drive the singles and airplay charts, to jump on board.
While Stapleton added variety to station playlists, he didn’t spawn a movement. His gritty track “Nobody to Blame” crept up the charts in the months after the CMA show, and cracked the Top 10; a certified hit, though it was curious not to see it go even higher. “Parachute,” his next single, also moving slowly, is at No. 20 after about six months.
“It did surprise me a little bit,” R.J. Curtis, Nashville editor for All Access Music Group, said of radio not pouncing on Stapleton’s music, calling it a “missed opportunity.” “I feel like it’s puzzling to me that you have an amazing television moment . . . that creates low-hanging fruit for programmers. I’m not sure everybody took advantage of that.”
On the other hand, satellite radio, such as Sirius XM’s channel the Highway, has championed Stapleton for months, and fans have consistently bought, streamed and downloaded songs from “Traveller” — more proof that commercial radio listeners don’t speak for all country fans.
“I think one would be foolish to think that all of a sudden that’s going to change country radio or something like that,” said singer Will Hoge, Stapleton’s friend and frequent co-writer. “But it did sort of pull the curtain back and go, ‘Okay, there is more to country music’ for people that are on the outside. There’s more than just the truck songs and beer songs.”
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As Curtis says, the dominan t sound of the country format ebbs and flows over time. Right now, separate from Stapleton, he sees a “small movement coming back to center” with young, traditional artists such as Jon Pardi and William Michael Morgan. Pardi recently had a radio No. 1 with the twangy “Head Over Boots,” while Morgan’s classic baritone on “I Met a Girl” also topped the charts.
To this day, Stapleton’s victory remains a validation for fans who are dismayed by contemporary country music, with its artists like Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, who routinely sell out arenas and stadiums but are long criticized for music categorized as “bro country.”
Writer Kyle Coroneos, who runs the website Saving Country Music, said the listeners who enjoy artists like Stapleton (and Americana singers like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson) “are the great forgotten country music fans that number in the millions.” He theorized that CMA members — 7,000 executives, artists, publicists, songwriters, musicians, etc. — “vote their conscience” on award ballots rather than looking at what sells.
“Stapleton is a result of an underlying anger and frustration of what country music had become,” Coroneos said. “I think even a lot of the artists that are responsible for some of the music that gets criticized so often — this isn’t the stuff they want to do. They look at Chris Stapleton with envy and with respect, because that’s what they wish they could have created for themselves.”
Indeed, a number of artists have signaled that they’re not necessarily thrilled with the lighter fare their labels market to radio, but they find it necessary to stay relevant and earn a living.
Jon Loba, executive vice president of BBR Music Group and a director-at-large on the CMA board, says he hasn’t seen a lot of “copycat” artists, which is a bit surprising. It’s possible Stapleton is a one-off — or there hasn’t been enough time for other singers to echo his style. Loba recalls seeing Stapleton and Timberlake perform was like a “religious experience.”
“We are all so competitive on the label side, it’s real easy to sit there and criticize other acts or other performances,” he said. Not so much in this case: “It was truly magical.”
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Those eight minutes also reminded everyone of the power of television in an era when broadcast ratings are dropping across the board.
“This was a time when artistry spoke louder than conventional wisdom, the Music Row infrastructure, the multimedia broadcasting platforms and, frankly, the Internet,” said Holly Gleason, a Nashville-based music critic and artist development consultant. “This thing did not break via YouTube or Twitter. It was straight down the middle, ABC-TV and the CMA Awards telecast.”
Robert Deaton, the CMA Awards’ executive producer, said the reaction of other artists shown on camera — Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, all jamming to the music — “made it transcend not only in that room, but through the airwaves.”
Naturally, Stapleton will appear again on the CMA Awards stage this year. Country singer Jake Owen, who has been friends with him for years, joked that people are making Stapleton out to be “godlike.”
What he actually did, Owen said, is “bring another element to country music that’s been missing for a while.”