The most telling sign was that Stapleton won the coveted new artist of the year award. That’s notable for two reasons: First, 37-year-old Stapleton has been working in the music industry for the last 15 years — hardly what you would call new. Yet he still qualified because he recently released his solo debut album, “Traveller,” which received near-unanimous rave reviews. Second, Stapleton beat out the quickly-ascending Sam Hunt, who was widely expected to win as the genre’s latest contender for a pop-crossover sensation.
Choosing Stapleton over Hunt seemed deliberate, especially as co-host Brad Paisley took a few jabs at the 30-year-old Hunt during the opening monologue for his rap-tinged, lyrical talk-singing in songs such as “Take Your Time” and “Break Up in a Small Town.” (Paisley turned it into a verb called “Sam Hunting.”) Hunt is a symbol of country music’s latest identity crisis, marked by the wave of “bro-country” that music critic Jody Rosen coined as “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.”
Stapleton couldn’t be more different from these singers who have taken over the country charts, from the bluegrass vibe to his low-key personality on stage to his long beard and cowboy hat. It all feeds into the idea of what “real” country music should sound and look like — a topic which can (and will) be debated until the end of time. But as the bro-country trend grows tired and listeners yearn for something more than party songs about drinking beer on the back of truck tailgates, there’s been a wider, mainstream push to appeal to country purists.
You can see this in niche favorite Kacey Musgraves landing a CMAs performing slot and multiple nominations. Or the wave of publicity for acclaimed traditional acts like Sturgill Simpson and Ashley Monroe (who got a few seconds of face time on the CMAs thanks to an “Ashley Madison” joke from Paisley). The iHeartMusic “On the Verge” program, which uses its massive radio reach to boost debut singers, recently pushed out newcomer Cam’s bare-bones ballad “Burning House.” Last year, Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group launched its Nash Icons imprint, signing veteran artists such as Reba, Hank Williams Jr. and Ronnie Dunn, so they can continue their traditional style of music.
As for Stapleton, it helped that not only did he sweep the album, new artist and male vocalist categories, but he easily had the best performance of the night. The crowd went crazy as he and mega-star Justin Timberlake performed Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” and Timberlake’s “Drink You Away.” That, combined with the victories, meant that Stapleton was dominating the headlines on Thursday — his album, which has sold less than 100,000 copies so far, is poised to make an impact at the top of the iTunes album chart.
It seemed all too fitting that after Stapleton’s electric performance, next on the bill was Florida Georgia Line, the party-loving duo that inspired Rosen’s bro-country thesis. (“Now we have to follow that. Yikes!!! #Timberlake #Stapleton” they tweeted from backstage.) The two performances were polar opposite in tone and aesthetics, as FGL sang their new tune “Confessions” and lead vocalist Tyler Hubbard rocked the trendy man-bun that was also mocked by Paisley earlier in the show.
Of course, the bro-country style of music remains a huge seller and is loved by many listeners. And ultimately, “king bro” Luke Bryan still won the top prize of entertainer of the year. He probably deserves it, as he has a huge fanbase and sells out arenas every summer. But with Stapleton stealing all the thunder, the message is clear: The tide is starting to turn in country music.