Chris Stapleton Is Your New "Real Country Music" Savior

So the 49th-annual Country Music Association Awards—the Grammys for people who hate ObamaCare, basically—went down last night, and the guy in this video won all the important ones. (Not Justin Timberlake; the other one, the burly, hirsute fella who looks like an extra in that new movie where Leonardo DiCaprio sleeps in bear carcasses.) Chris Stapleton is his name, and many a die-hard modern country fan had no idea who he was until last night, and that is very much the point, because the country music establishment is sick to death of die-hard modern country fans. Stapleton’s shocking sweep last night was a coronation, an intervention, and an assassination attempt.


The coronation part is obvious: Stapleton is a big-shot songwriter and former bluegrass-band stalwart whose solo debut, Traveller, is classic-sounding and big-hearted and regally forlorn, as though sung by a dude curled in the fetal position and suspended in a keg of beer. Craft beer, though! A good IPA. It’s not quite great, but it sounds Authentic and Human, and at this point, that’ll do. Critics loved it, but it didn’t sell much, and you sure as hell never hear it on country radio. That’s the intervention part.

If you hate modern country music—if you dismiss it as the province of tight pants and backwards ballcaps and ill-advised forays into rapping and “let’s drive out to the middle of nowhere in my truck so I can fuck you in a cornfield” love songs that sound suspiciously like abduction scenarios, well, this IPA’s for you. The biggest CMA Award last night, Entertainer of the Year, went to Luke Bryan, who’s fine in small doses but is perhaps best known as the guy who once fell offstage while covering Macklemore, which is a better argument for the existence of God than any country song I’ve ever heard. Almost every major star these days is trying to rip him off. (Sam Hunt is best at it; Chase Rice is the worst.) The bros are running the asylum; as for their better halves, practically the only way for a newer female artist to have a big hit nowadays is to write a song explicitly complaining about this situation. It was all amusing for awhile, but it has since grown intolerable. Bros got plenty of airtime last night, but few actual awards and no respect. That’s the assassination part.

Weighing down a relative unknown like Stapleton with Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and Male Vocalist of the Year trophies is the CMAs’ not terribly subtle way of hanging a PLEASE GOD LISTEN TO THIS GUY INSTEAD banner across the stage, and across the television screens of fans industry stalwarts wish had way better taste. “Country Music For People Who Don’t Like Country Music” has long since hardened into a cliché; from Kacey Musgraves to Jamey Johnston to Sturgill Simpson, it’s a genre unto itself. Stapleton’s just the latest champion, but what’s new is that last night the industry handed him the biggest, shiniest, loudest megaphone possible. SAVE US FROM OURSELVES, was the subtext. We’ll see. Let’s all dial up a country station a month from now and hope for the best.