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.
What does his performance — and his 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.”
Stapleton was well-known in the industry before the CMAs, having co-written six previous No. 1s for others, the most recent being Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn.” But can his true-grit sound fit in with — much less change — a format 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? Reports of the death of “bro country” may be premature. “Radio isn’t going to walk away from things that are still working for them,” says Mike Dungan, chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville, label home to Stapleton and CMA entertainer of the year Luke Bryan. “But we’ve been at our best when we widen the format and go way to the left and way to the right at the same time.”
Many Nashville insiders look at Stapleton’s CMAs sweep (for album, male vocalist and new artist of the year) as a clear shot across the “bro” bow. “Right now there’s such a backlash. People in town are tired of the truck bed/dirt road/drinking songs,” says manager Craig Dunn (Sara Evans). “The CMA voters were sending a message: ‘It’s time to get back to songs that have a little bit deeper meaning.’ ” Will it take? “It’s so far left of what would fit on mainstream radio right now,” says Dunn. “Chris has a brilliant album, but I think he’s going to end up more like Kacey Musgraves, having the great career even if radio doesn’t jump onboard.”
But Musgraves hasn’t had a singularly transforming moment like Stapleton’s. In the days following the CMAs, Stapleton’s new single, “Nobody to Blame,” became the second most-added song of the week. And the impact was even more 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 ranging from $350 to $500. That demand “is listener behavior,” says Scott Mahalick, Alpha Broadcasting executive vp programming. “How can you not pay attention to that?”
Country Radio Hall of Famer Mike Brophey, program director of Boston’s Greater Media, says, “Programmers will want to listen to the next Chris Stapleton song. But the question becomes, ‘Does this song fit the station?’ “
One guy who would rather not call this a triumph for any anti-bro movement is Stapleton himself. “Personally, it’s a huge victory,” says the unlikely new star, “but I don’t think it’s squashing someone else’s music or kicking down the door for another kind of music. What it can do,” he concludes, “is show that there’s room for everything.”