Who is Chris Stapleton? This is a question on millions of Google searches and in the minds of Sam Hunt fans everywhere since Wednesday night (November 4th), when their beloved Sam Hunt was shut out at the CMA’s by this guy they’d never heard of. It was a huge upset when Stapleton beat out Hunt, Thomas Rhett, Kelsea Ballerini, and Maddie & Tae for New Artist of the Year. But then he went on to win Album of the Year for Traveller, so the Sam Hunt fans were forced to admit this Chris Stapleton might be a name worth knowing. Later, he even won the Male Vocalist of the Year award, breaking Blake Shelton’s five-year winning streak and causing Luke Bryan’s Entertainer of the Year win to look at best like an afterthought and at worst completely comical. Eric Church, predicted to be a front runner for the top awards, was shut out except for a joint win with Keith Urban for Event of the Year for “Raise ’em Up.” Little Big Town’s three wins looked unimportant compared to Chris Stapleton’s sweep. Both Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert thanked Stapleton in their acceptance speeches, and Luke noted that seeing Stapleton “have this night is so uplifting.” To add to all of this, Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake took the stage for what was undoubtedly the best performance of the evening, singing “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Drink You Away.”
So naturally, the million-dollar question among the masses is, “Who the bloody hell is Chris Stapleton?”
In an effort to answer this for themselves, the country community has launched Chris’s only album, Traveller, straight to the top of the iTunes chart. He has never had a hit crack the top 40 on Billboard Country Airplay, but that could all soon change. Chris Stapleton will now be a household name. Traditionalists everywhere are dancing in the streets, some even calling Chris Stapleton our “country music savior”–rest assured that Country Exclusive does not hold this view–but this will certainly change Chris Stapleton’s life forever.
So aside from the 2015 CMA’s making Chris Stapleton an overnight superstar, what has this actually done for our beloved country music?
The sweep of Chris Stapleton has finally begun to put mainstream artists and independent artists on equal footing, in terms of recognition. Stapleton is widely respected in the industry for writing others’ hits, both traditional and otherwise–in fact, on many traditionalist blogs, Chris Stapleton is often ridiculed for having taken part in such pieces of shit as Thomas Rhett’s “South Side.” Although Traveller is his debut album, Chris Stapleton is a name that has been around Nashville for many years, and the news that he was making an album was welcome and long overdue to many dedicated fans. The CMA took notice of all this. It didn’t matter that Stapleton has had little to no commercial success. If there was ever a time when the comments of Gary Overton–“If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist”–rang false, it was Wednesday night. This is a statement that radio cannot ignore. Country radio is no longer the only way to gain attention and recognition–in fact, radio-supported Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett, and Kelsea Ballerini left the CMA’s empty-handed. It may be that country radio will take notice of this and start to play artists like Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves–album sales and declining radio ratings in 2015 have suggested country radio’s loss of relevancy, and this was the ultimate indicator. Country music may look back on this day in its history and find that the victories of Chris Stapleton, traditional country, and music of substance marked the beginning of the returning of country to its roots. Chris Stapleton is no “savior”–country cannot be saved overnight. His music blends country, blues, and soul, and so many have been quick to complain that he is not “strictly” country, so we should not be so excited about this victory. But we are music fans first, and Chris Stapleton has brought a huge victory, both for country music and for music in general, and for this we should all be forever grateful.