It’s become a famous line: Former Sony Music chairman Gary Overton caused an uproar in Nashville this year when he declared “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” After the CMAs, that statement seems especially amusing.
It’s commonly accepted that the best way to build a sustainable mainstream country music career is if you can hit it big on country radio. But that idea has become fraught as complications are exposed: For example, the extraordinarily tough time that female artists face getting airplay. Or the fact that some artists sell just fine without any radio love, and those who get No. 1 radio hits aren’t always big sellers.
However, no one proved Overton’s statement wrong quite like Chris Stapleton on Wednesday night, when the Kentucky bluegrass musician walked away with three major CMA awards despite little attention on country radio. Stapleton, 37, won new artist of the year over the astonishingly fast-rising Sam Hunt. He snapped Blake Shelton’s five-year male vocalist winning streak. And he triumphed over other lauded records (Kacey Musgraves’s “Pageant Material,” Little Big Town’s “Pain Killer”) for album of the year.
So how did he do it? If you looked closely, there were three moments during the CMAs that perfectly illustrated why Stapleton had such a sweep:
1) His acceptance speech for male vocalist reminded people he’s been a hit songwriter in Nashville for years.
Stapleton got emotional during his third trip to the stage when he thanked his wife and as he looked around the cheering crowd. “There’s a bunch of people standing right here … people I’ve written songs with and gotten to sing with. And I look at all the faces and all of the people who helped me support my family over the last 15 years, writing songs and playing out there,” he said, gesturing to the artists. “It’s an unbelievable thing and I’m not going to take it lightly.”
Earlier this decade, Stapleton was a Grammy-nominated bluegrass artist with his band The SteelDrivers before he went solo. But he’s also a songwriter who has co-written songs for Nashville’s most popular acts. Some of Stapleton’s well-known cuts include the serious (Josh Turner’s “Your Man”; Luke Bryan’s “Drink a Beer”) to the lovelorn (Kenny Chesney’s “Never Wanted Nothing More”; Darius Rucker’s “Come Back Song”) to the lighter (Trace Adkins’s “Swing”; Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn.”)
So even if some viewers aren’t familiar with him, he’s been around Nashville a long time. And clearly there were plenty of artists — and CMA voters — who felt his recognition was overdue.
2) His collaboration with Justin Timberlake showed off his dynamic live performance skills.
When Miranda Lambert accepted her trophy for female vocalist of the year, all she wanted to do was talk about Stapleton’s stellar duet with Timberlake earlier in the evening, which brought down the house as they rocked out to “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Drink You Away.”
It was the kind of performance that immediately made every other singer that performed after them feel insecure. Lambert reiterated this as she got up on stage wearing a sparkly Chris Stapleton T-shirt. “Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton, thank you very much,” she raved. “I’m gonna go home and practice.”
3) Luke Bryan’s shout-out proved that Stapleton is simply really well-liked.
Many of the artists in the crowd were shown beaming and dancing along during Stapleton’s performance, and he got especially massive cheers whenever it was announced that he won another trophy. And Bryan took time out of this acceptance speech for entertainer of the year (the final prize of the night) to give Stapleton shout-out.
“Watching Chris Stapleton have this night is so uplifting,” Bryan gushed. Sure, Stapleton wrote his hit “Drink a Beer,” so the two go way back. But the fact that the genre’s biggest star made a point of calling Stapleton out one more time? That just shows that some powerful people in Nashville saw this as a long time coming.