Will Country Radio Embrace CMA Awards Breakout Star Chris Stapleton?

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Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton perform at the 2015 CMAs.

Sometimes Cinderella is 37 years old, has a scraggly beard and sounds like a cross between George Jones and Otis Redding.

To say that Chris Stapleton was the belle of the ball at the Nov. 4 Country Music Association Awards is a vast understatement. Following his galvanizing duet with Justin Timberlake, the Nashville veteran became the day’s top trending search on Google, and then -- against all odds -- a top-selling album everywhere. Stapleton’s 5-month-old debut album, Traveller, sold 177,000 copies (including track-equivalent albums) in the week ending Nov. 5 -- nearly all of those in the 24-hour period between the duet and the close of Nielsen Music’s reporting period. After Traveller, released in May, seemed to have run its course, Stapleton now has both the first album and digital track (“Tennessee Whiskey,” performed on the show) ever to re-enter the Billboard charts at No. 1.

But what does his performance in front of 16.3 million viewers -- and three CMA wins, a strong endorsement from the country-music establishment -- portend for the genre? “Seeing the reaction, you cannot turn a blind eye to it,” says Tracy Gershon, a manager at Red Light (the company that handles Stapleton) who signed fellow disrupter Miranda Lambert to Sony in 2003. “In country music there’s always this tide that turns, like when Dwight Yoakam or Randy Travis showed up. It shows people are ready again for a more truly country-leaning, meat-on-the-bone kind of music. You have to sit up and take notice.”

Stapleton may be seen as an outsider, but he’s been quietly affecting change from the inside for years, as a top songwriter. The No. 1 hits he’s co-written include Kenny Chesney’s “Never Wanted Nothing More, Josh Turner’s “Your Man,” Darius Rucker’s “Come Back Song,” and, just two months ago, Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn.” As CMA Awards executive producer Robert Deaton says, “That he is a great talent was not new to me. We put him on the show behind Luke Bryan a couple of years ago,” doing backup on “Drink a Beer,” the mournful ballad Stapleton co-wrote for 2015’s CMA entertainer of the year.

So part of Stapleton’s CMAs sweep (for album, male vocalist and new artist of the year) can be chalked up to the friendships he developed in Music Row’s writing, publishing, and artist communities, which make up a bigger share of the CMA voting membership than they do with comparable awards shows like the ACMs. “Pretty much every artist in town has either written with him or been touched by his music in some way,” says Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley. “We feel like he’s always been our little best kept secret, and here’s his chance to reach the masses.” But Nashville insiders also look at Stapleton’s wins as a clear shot across the “bro” bow. “Right now there’s such a backlash,” says manager Craig Dunn (who works with Sara Evans). “People in town are tired of the truck bed/dirt road/drinking songs. The CMA voters were sending a message: ‘It’s time to get back to songs that have a little bit deeper meaning.’”

But can his true-grit sound fit in with -- much less change -- a format that lately has been largely devoted to giving its mostly female audience a succession of sexy guys who pair tailgating lyrics with hard-rock riffs and hip-hop-tinged beats? Some greeted his sudden ubiquity as a bellwether signaling the triumph of traditional country over tailgate-country. Rolling Stone Country went so far as to deem the CMAs performance “a death sentence for bro country.” But reports of the death of Daisy Dukes and back-road beer blasts may have been greatly exaggerated.

“I think those are pretty bold statements,” says Mike Dungan, chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville, label home to Stapleton and Bryan. “Radio isn’t going to walk away from things that are still ­working for them. But there’s been noise in Nashville and the community about all the songs starting to sound the same, and here’s something really fresh with a huge response, so we’ll see how this plays out. I can’t make any predictions on whether this is a precursor in the change in the overall sound. Personally, I doubt that. But we’ve been at our best when we widen the format and are representative of a lot of things. I can give you examples in the history when business was really high and we were way to the left and way to the right at the same time.”

Will Stapleton take at radio? In the days following the CMAs, his new single, “Nobody to Blame,” became the second most-added song of the week (trailing only Eric Church’s new one). It will almost certainly do better at radio than two previous singles than two previous singles that both peaked at No. 46, and his most recent one, the album’s title track, which didn’t chart at all. 

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But it’s not as if the CMAs sweep will make country radio feel obligated to play his records. Observers point to the CMAs having a periodic history of handing out multiple trophies to artists or records that never got much airtime, from Alison Krauss in 1995 to Lee Ann Womack in 2005 to Kacey Musgraves’ recent run of nominations and wins, pointing up a slight rift between what Nashville wishes radio would play and what programmers think works for the format. “I think it is fine if the CMA rewards talent that is different from what radio favors,” says Country Radio Hall of Famer Mike Brophey, program director at Greater Media Boston. “Programmers will want to listen to the next Chris Stapleton song now, but the question becomes, does this song fit the station?” 

And it could be a tight squeeze. Stapleton is “so far left of what would fit on mainstream radio right now -- even further than ‘Girl Crush’,” says Dunn (citing another CMA favorite by Little Big Town that won radio support only after racking up huge sales). “Chris has a brilliant album, but I think he’s going to end up more like Kacey Musgraves, having the great career with sales and streaming and critical respect even if radio doesn’t jump on board.” Then again, Musgraves hasn’t had a singularly transforming moment like Stapleton’s star-is-born TV turn, and there may never have been a sales comeback story quite like his in any genre, so comparisons might be moot. 

The impact was immediate in ticket sales: His upcoming West Coast shows were selling out while the CMAs were still on the air, with tickets on the secondary market suddenly having asking prices from $350 to $500. “That is [radio] listener behavior,” says Scott Mahalick, Alpha Broadcasting executive vp programming. “How can you not pay attention to that?”

In the end, radio play could just be gravy. In the wake of the CMAs, social media was full of first-hand accounts of incidental discovery, like the guy who said Stapleton’s album was “the first country album by someone under 60 I’ve bought in 20 years. That was all part of Dungan’s plan, or at least hope: “We anticipated that there was an audience out there that was perhaps disenfranchised by what was coming out of Nashville, and we went after that audience,” says the label CEO, “trying to get a critical mass to a point where you can take it mainstream.”

Mary Hilliard Harrington, Dierks Bentley’s manager, handled Stapleton’s publicity when he was first expecting to release an album in 2013, and she was called in to help with the A&R on the sessions. Three different sets of recordings led up to Traveller, she says, reflecting different expectations of what Stapleton could do. First, he recorded a more left-field album back when Luke Lewis was still in charge of UMG Nashville, an unreleased project that “was all vibe, very atmospheric. It would be a great record to drink some whiskey and smoke some pot to, but it was never going to get played on the radio,” she says. After Dungan took over the company reigns, they swung the pendulum the other way and dipped into the backlog of songs Stapleton had written with other artists in mind, hoping to get something that would work on country radio. A third try -- Traveller -- landed somewhere in the middle.

“Cut to him losing his dad [who died in October 2013] and needing to call time-out for a minute and regroup on what he wanted to say as an artist, and that’s what got us to this record,” says Harrington. “That whole string of career and/or personal events made it what it is. We sat in a song meeting at Universal with the head of A&R and [producer] Dave Cobb and Chris and his wife Morgane, and there was a very concerted conversation about just picking the most personal songs, because of the serious period of grief he had just gone through with his dad dying. It was ‘Let’s find the best songs that you can absolutely kill vocally, and make the best record we can make, turn it into the marketing department, and then they can figure it out.’ There was not one conversation about a radio single going into making that record. And it worked! Not going in with any idea of making it for radio is what made a really great album.”

If Stapleton is opening some doors, who else could walk through? Since Stapleton effectively straddles the mainstream country/Americana divide, some of the leading lights of alt-country, like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, come up for mentions, but Nashville insiders doubt we’ll see them sweeping the CMAs any time soon. “I get the impression Sturgill is very happy being outside,” says Gershon. “Country music still doesn’t like trespassers. It is a community, and Chris has been a member of the community as a songwriter, paying his dues in a weird way.” 

Dunn sees the shift as being more about depth than style. “I think we’re seeing some course correction in the format with songs that have more substance. Maren Morris [recently signed by Sony in a bidding war] heads in that direction, and so does the solo stuff Charles Kelley is doing, and Cam -- there are so many artists bringing it back in toward the center.”

One guy who would rather not call his music a triumph for any anti-bro movement is Stapleton himself. “Personally, it’s a huge victory,” says the unlikely new star, “but not over some other kind of music. I don’t think it’s squashing someone else’s music or kicking down the door for another kind of music. Justin Timberlake showed up on the CMAs and helped me because he was into it and we respect each other. 

“What it can do,” he concludes, “is show that there’s room for everything, and we’re all in it together.” 

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of Billboard.