Can Chris Stapleton Make Mainstream Country Legit Again?

Chris Stapleton, who plays in The Woodlands on Friday night, is both popular and well-respected, a rarity in today's mainstream country music scene.
Chris Stapleton, who plays in The Woodlands on Friday night, is both popular and well-respected, a rarity in today's mainstream country music scene.
Photo by Marco Torres
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Commercially speaking, country music is in a pretty good place right now. Genre stalwarts like Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood were, are and will continue to be stars. Country fans are a notoriously loyal lot, which probably explains why the genre continues to move millions of records in an era when selling records isn’t exactly a trend. Hell, country radio – in a time when terrestrial radio can safely be labeled as at a crossroads – continues to develop new stars while also pushing those already in the status quo.

All things considered, country music as a genre is in a pretty great spot from a monetary perspective. And yet some aren’t exactly thrilled with the current state of mainstream country. That holds true for diehard fans and country musicians alike.

Sturgill Simpson blasted mainstream country for allegedly co-opting Merle Haggard’s name in the wake of the country legend’s death in April 2016. Fellow singer-songwriter Jason Isbell agreed that their particular brand of country – quality but not exactly made for radio – wasn’t gaining a ton of support from the mainstream country community...with one exception.

“I’m happy they seem to care about Chris Stapleton a lot,” Isbell told News OK last September. “Any time I see him getting respect from that side of the fence, I think it’s a good thing for everybody...The only reason Chris is a success is because people enjoy the music that he’s making and they’re willing to buy it. That’s the only thing they care about. If he was somebody else and didn’t have good songs and people were buying those, then they would make whoever that was a big deal.”

Point being, there’s a battle being waged in country music today, by fans and artists alike. One side supports the accessible pop stylings of Bryan and Kenny Chesney. Others prefer the grittier, real-life tales of talented types like Isbell and Simpson. Chris Stapleton, meanwhile, is the bridge that just might unite the two.

Stapleton plays the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on Friday night, his second trip to The Woodlands in a little more than a year (he opened for Hank Williams Jr. last August). He is touring in support of his From a Room double-set; Volume I dropped in May, and Volume II is set for a December release. That set follows his 2015 smash debut, Traveller, which went double Platinum and won pretty much every country-related award under the sun.

Traveller produced a number of hit singles, most notably “Tennessee Whiskey,” “Nobody to Blame” and “Parachute.” From a Room, meanwhile, has already spawned a pair of hits in “Either Way” and “Broken Halos.” In short, Stapleton’s commercial bona fides are unquestioned; dude is a pop star in his own right, perhaps not in the most traditional sense, but a pop star still.

And while Stapleton has been embraced – perhaps reluctantly at first, but embraced nonetheless – by the big business side of country music, that hasn’t lessened his support in more independent circles. There are a few reasons for this:

** Stapleton began his career as a songwriter for such country hitmakers as Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Alison Krauss, Tim McGraw, Darius Rucker, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. Hell, the dude wrote a song for Adele! Chris Stapleton is accepted by singer-songwriters because he’s the very definition of a singer-songwriter.

** Stapleton's wife, Morgane, is an accomplished singer-songwriter in her own right, one who not only performs background/harmony/duet vocals alongside her husband, but also served a key behind-the-scenes role in the production of Traveller. Chris Stapleton is not only a family man, but his brand is essentially that of a small family business.

** Stapleton paid his dues. His first proper solo full-length album wasn’t released until the man was 37. This ain’t exactly some flash-in-the-pan, overnight success story we’re dealing with here.

** Stapleton looks like an old-school country outlaw type along the lines of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. With his cowboy hat, long hair and beard, he isn’t traditionally handsome like Luke Bryan or Sam Hunt; in other words, Stapleton isn’t getting by on his looks.

Now, none of this is to really take a side in the whole mainstream vs. indie country debate. I like Luke Bryan and Chris Stapleton, in different ways for sure, but still claim fandom for each. Garth Brooks is the largest figure in country music history, and he’s the very definition of a pop star. Even George Strait and Alan Jackson, while country figures through and through, had some pop sensibilities in their respective catalogs.

If anything, country fans should rejoice at such choices. While some genres are going through identify crises – this is putting it kindly in some cases – country fans can turn on the likes of Isbell or Simpson when they’re feeling introspective, then flip over to Bryan, Aldean or Florida Georgia Line when they feel like turning it up and having a good time.

Or, they can turn on Chris Stapleton and do a little bit of both. He isn’t here to save a genre that doesn’t really need saving, but Stapleton may very well lend it a little extra legitimacy.

Chris Stapleton and special guests Marty Stuart and Brent Cobb perform Friday, October 27, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands. Gates open at 6 p.m.

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