The late Merle Haggard, while one of the great songwriters of his era, was not a particularly attractive man. No one ever mistook Willie Nelson for James Dean. And Lord knows George Jones never got confused with Kris Kristofferson.
Point being, country music (Kristofferson notwithstanding) was once a genre reserved for grizzled vagabonds and ex-cons, men who wrote songs about life on the road, broken relationships and finding love in the bottom of a bottle.
And then that damn Luke Bryan showed up.
Bryan, with his fitted T-shirts, coiffed hair and handsome mug, is emblematic of the new era of country music. Gone are the days of storytellers like Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt, or even more contemporary ones like Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam; they’ve succumbed to the likes of “bro country” artists like Bryan and Florida Georgia Line.
Or maybe not.
Perhaps country music has finally found its medium, where bro-country types can co-exist with a new era of singer-songwriters — folks like Chris Stapleton, Eric Church, Margo Price, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, the latter of whom is playing a sold-out show at White Oak Music Hall tomorrow.
The mainstream certainly seems to be making room.
Stapleton and Price have both served as musical guests on Saturday Night Live this season, while the former has become a full-fledged superstar over the past year. During that time, Stapleton – a bearded, long-haired outlaw type in the vein of Haggard and Waylon Jennings – debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts with his debut, Traveller. He won three major awards at the Country Music Association Awards, received four Grammy nominations (including Album of the Year) and won two.
Stapleton’s success has benefited his rebel country contemporaries.
A recent look at Billboard's Hot Country Songs charts revealed a mainstream country landscape that is still very much bro-country-centric. The airwaves are dominated by the likes of Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Florida Georgia Line and Rascal Flatts. Also appearing on the charts, however, are Stapleton (twice!) and Eric Church. Meanwhile, the Top Country Albums chart is ruled by Stapleton and Simpson (whose latest, A Sailor's Guide to Earth, recently debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200), and also features Church and the aforementioned Price, along with old country mainstays like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn.
Throw in a series of sold-out concerts — besides Simpson tomorrow, Stapleton’s August 12 show with Hank Williams Jr. in The Woodlands is already a sellout – and you have a groundswell of support for this new country movement. Just don’t expect it to morph into full-on rebel revolution.
Stapleton’s out-of-nowhere success story notwithstanding, he and his gang of country badasses are never going to totally overtake their bro country counterparts on the country airwaves, nor will you ever see the Houston Rodeo concert lineup dominated by the likes of Simpson or Jamey Johnson. Whereas Bryan, Bentley and the like sing about drinking beer, good timing and fun-loving romance, Simpson croons about reptile aliens and LSD, Johnson opines on his grandfather weathering the Great Depression while living on a cotton farm, and Price reflects on killing “the angel on my shoulder” with copious amounts of booze. Not the most accessible topics to the average country radio listener.
Therein lies Stapleton’s uniqueness; namely, that his songwriting approach isn’t really all that unique.
Stapleton writes in the same catchy, radio-friendly tone as the bro-country folks; he simply coats it in a layer of whiskey and dust. Hell, before venturing out as a solo artist, he wrote songs for the likes of pop-country mainstays Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and…wait for it…Luke Bryan!
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This is not an insult; crafting a catchy tune is no easy feat, and Stapleton does just that on Traveller, all the while maintaining his country outlaw status. Of the 14 songs on Stapleton’s debut, only two exceed five minutes (radio stations prefer that most singles clock in under that). Tracks like “When the Stars Come Out” and “Nobody to Blame” were tailor-made for country radio, while “Whiskey and You” and “Was It 26” – catchy in their own right – offset that pop mind-set with tales of regret, alcoholism and broken homes.
Fortunately, in today’s era of streaming and downloading, country fans don’t have to choose. Those in the mood for a jolly bro-ish good time can turn their hats backward, throw on some Luke Bryan or Cole Swindell, and chill on the back of a tailgate. Those in the mood to go deeper can curl up with a bottle of whiskey as artists like Simpson, Isbell and Stapleton sing their stories.
Country fans can have it all, for better and worse.