You have to admit mainstream country music doesn’t sound anything like country music. It’s a mish-mash of pop, rock and hip-hop with a slight twang. It’s over-processed, over-produced and targeted at the heartland market using keywords and tired clichés. At the risk of saying “back in my day”, it’s an affectation of what it used to be.
But there are artists rising to the top, like Chris Stapleton, who make real country music. Soulful, gritty, affecting country music that the artists wrote themselves.
His performance with Justin Timberlake in front of millions of television viewers was absolutely amazing. He performed a very powerful duet with one of the world’s biggest pop stars on the biggest stage in country music. Millions of mainstream fans who had no idea who Chris Stapleton was just watched him and Timberlake perform one of the best shows in the history of CMA.
Nothing was spared in the production of this performance.
The awards are held annually in November of each year. CMA Awards play a big role in determining who the big public figures are in country music for the coming year. When the CMA voting block – which consists of industry professionals, not fans – vote for a winner, they are making a statement about where country music is headed. For them to pick Chris Stapleton as the New Artist of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year and give him the Album of the Year, that says they believe the type of country music he represents deserves to be noticed. Stapleton is finally getting some decent rotation on mainstream country radio following last year’s CMAs.
Stapleton spent much of his career writing number one hits for country’s mainstream artists, and last year he went all in, dropping his debut album, Traveller. It’s about as good a debut as any artist could hope for.
But there’s another side to this, and it has to do with Justin Timberlake. He seems to be plotting a shift into country music. He’s hinted at the transition a few times over the past couple years. Remember his surprise appearance at Garth Brooks’ show at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville show when he played “Friends in Low Places”? He also purchased a $4 million property near Nashville, which was owned by Aubrey Preston, who saved Music Row’s historic Studio A. His killer duet with Stapleton at the CMA Awards was a massive crowd pleaser, so it seems like he passed the test of an artist who can easily fall into the country scene as well as pop.
Timberlake’s seemed to have shown what kind of country music he is comfortable playing – the authentic kind. If Timberlake makes the crossover, the labels, executives and country radio will have to follow suit. Timberlake has massive star power. How many non-country fans who would never have never listened to country music tuned in to watch him on the CMA Awards? Doing a duet with Chris Stapleton could not have been a better move for him to showcase his talent for singing country.
If Stapleton starts to get heavy rotation on mainstream, his contemporaries, like Sturgill Simpson — who has a big project with Atlantic in the works – and Jason Isbell, who had one of the best-selling country albums not on country radio this year, will finally get on country radio. we may finally start to put the ridiculousness coming out of the country music scene behind us.
Now, you could also argue that I have illusions of grandeur, and that they’re just CMA Awards, and it was merely a good performance between two musicians who are mutual admirers of one another. But I don’t think that’s the case. Stapleton isn’t a flash in the pan. He’s written hit after hit for guys like Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett, poster boys of the mainstream. He’s sustained a career for years as a performer and an amazing songwriter, and it doesn’t go unnoticed.
Seemingly gone are the days when country was the original three chords and the truth, even if that truth was ugly or gauche. But there are signs of a sea change.
So it doesn’t appear that I am not just picking on country music, the entire music industry needs an overhaul to return to the basics – a well written song performed by a great artist:
Songs like “IN THE LIVING YEARS” written by Mike Rutherford and B. A. Robertson
“IF YOU DON’T KNOW ME BY NOW” written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff
“THE DANCE” written and composed by Tony Arata