How Chris Stapleton Saved Mainstream Country Music
  • THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 18, 2016

  • Posted by: Don Saas

The most common phrase I see on OKCupid (besides people describing themselves as "laid back," "easy going," "relaxed," etc.) is that they love all music except for some combination of rap, country, and metal. I'll give you one guess as to how likely I am to send messages to those people on the popular Millennial dating site...

But I get those prejudices. When I was growing up, I associated country music with rednecks. It was what my extended family (who I couldn't have less in common with) listened to, and it was what the kids at school who tortured me cause I didn't like to hunt/fish/go muddin' listened to. Literally saying the name Garth Brooks out loud gives me nightmarish flashbacks to working at an FYE with a manager who would play Brooks (and Taylor Swift when she was still a country singer) as punishment for me if I didn't reach my sales quota (and also cause he was just a huge fan). If you put on Tim McGraw, I will do my damnedest to put at least a couple miles between myself and whoever is trying to foist "Live Like You Were Dying" on me.



But as I got older and remembered how much I love Johnny Cash and Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris and would grow to love artists like Wilco and First Aid Kit and the Lone Bellow, I realized something. I didn't hate country music. I hated contemporary commercial country. And that's perfectly understandable. It's jingoistic, hyper-conservative, maudlin exploitation of economically displaced rural/middle America. There's no honest substance to it. It's tractors, dead dogs, beer, and a lazy corporate repackaging of what people think it's like to live in the South/rural America and not a remotely honest reflection of the lives of the people that call those parts of the country home (and I can make that judgment call cause I'm from a Southern rural state and specifically one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in America).

And when I realized that I disliked most commercial country for essentially the same reasons that I disliked most other examples of commercial music, it opened doors for me to enjoy music that I'd been putting aside for so long. The Decemberists' The King Is Dead is explicitly a country rock album. I was able to open up to Jason Isbell (who had his first #1 album on the country charts last year). One of my top 10 records of the 2010s, The Lone Bellow, fits every possible definition of classic country music. But beyond alternative acts, I was able to recognize when "commercial" country artists did something great. "Need You Now" by Lady Antebellum is a damn near perfect pop Americana song. It's Fleetwood Mac-esque in its examination of the messy realities of relationships and lust. And if there's one country artist working today who can totally change how haters (past Don included) feel about contemporary mainstream country, it's Chris Stapleton.



It would be inaccurate to say that Chris Stapleton appeared out of nowhere. He's written for Adele, Darius Rucker, Kenny Chesney, George Strait and more. He'd written five #1 singles for the country charts. But when he won Album of the Year at least year's Country Music Awards, nobody outside of the most well-versed experts in the country scene knew his name. But that all changed when we heard Traveller.

The Grammy award-winning artist is damn near the platonic ideal entry point into contemporary country for folks who say they don't like country. Though Stapleton's music is often described as "outlaw country," that gives me too many visions of Waylon Jennings and the two youngest Hank Williams to feel accurate. Traveller is an expert fusion of southern rock, blues, and emotional Americana storytelling. Anchored by a titanic wail of a voice, intricate and rollicking guitar melodies, and southern fried narratives, Traveller earns its name...an album that feels like home to anybody who's ever lived in the South but knows there's more to the world than your little patch of Appalachia.



It's hard to decide whether the most appealing element of Traveller is Stapleton's voice of what he's capable of accomplishing with his guitar. I've lamented in the past on this site about the shortage of powerhouse male vocalists working in music today but Chris Stapleton joins Justin Vernon as one of the glorious exceptions to that statement. It isn't simply that his voice is powerful (though hearing him hit some of the notes on "Nobody To Blame" shows that it's plenty powerful); it's the drama he's capable of evoking. With his pained drawl on "Tennesee Whisky," you hear the inspiration of redeeming love (and pairs it with vocal runs that would make Mariah Carey proud...who said the male vibrato was dead in contemporary music). "Parachute" brings a fiery intensity. His voice has theatrics, range, and intensity like few (if any) of his peers.

And as a guitarist, Stapleton fuses uptempo, finger-picking heavy bluegrass style string work with guitar licks that wouldn't be out of place on a Tom Petty record. As a musician, Chris Stapleton is catnip for folks who value craft as much as they value hooks and immediately inviting melodies (not that he's lacking in those departments either). The guitar work on Traveller is songcraft for folks who want to lose themselves in the intricacies of the construction of the music they're listening to.



Even if you don't like "country," listen to Traveller. Listen to the Lone Bellow. Listen to "24 Frames" by Jason Isbell from Something More Than Free. Not since the heyday of Patsy Cline and June Carter Cash has their been a better time to dip your toes back in the country well. And who knew that it would take a long-haired songwriter from Kentucky to help convince so many folks to give country a try again.


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