Chris Stapleton's Underdog Days Are Over After Sunday's ACM Sweep

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It’s still a little hard to make sense of Chris Stapleton’s domination of Sunday night’s Academy of Country Music Awards, but it was still pretty cool to watch. It’s not quite the surprise his takeover of last fall’s CMAs was, but Stapleton has yet to receive the kind of traction from country radio he needs to become a true superstar, so he’s still in a sort of limbo. In Houston, 93Q has been paying some attention to “Nobody to Blame” lately, but 100.3 The Bull remains aloof.

However, as Stapleton’s January performance on Saturday Night Live and spot at Coachella later this month have proved, he’s quickly becoming the country act whose name it’s acceptable to drop where talk of cowboy hats and steel guitars is otherwise taboo. As well he should be: Stapleton’s songwriting is top-notch, easily relatable and, were it not so damn country, translatable into a variety of pop styles. So since the ACMs no longer have Taylor Swift around to shower with statuettes, they might as well give ’em to him.

As the Guardian pointed out last week, there are enough country-music awards shows to make for a sort of alphabet soup. The number is now up to four, events that basically “dominate primetime television during different points of the year to hand out hardware among the same crop of new country singers and groups," critic Mark Guarino writes. Social media drives interest in the awards even further, because fans love nothing more than to play along at home. But the ACMs are the oldest of the country awards shows (this year was the 51st), and they’re in Vegas, which means they can get pretty ridiculous.

To that end, few high/low points from Sunday included Eric Church paying tribute to some noted country musicians we lost last year, namely Scott Weiland, Lemmy, David Bowie and Glenn Frey; or Female Vocalist winner Miranda Lambert not performing something from the album that ostensibly got her the award, Platinum, but joining Keith Urban and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons for a superfluous but entertaining run through “Tush” that at least let Urban and Gibbons cut loose for about 45 seconds. Katy Perry and Dolly Parton looked like they were genuinely having fun during their medley of “Coat of Many Colors,” “Jolene” and “9 to 5,” but why on Earth they didn’t invite Kacey Musgraves to join them, when she was standing right there after introducing them, will remain a question for the ages. Most everything else was typical awards-show white noise: the incessant tie-ins with Ram Trucks; voiceovers like “Put your right hand on a cold one…Florida Georgia Line performs ‘Confession’ next”; or watching co-host Luke Bryan stumble over the teleprompter. (His partner, Dierks Bentley, was even more of a phantom.)

But nothing could kill Stapleton’s vibe Sunday. He was running out of people to thank by the time Male Vocalist of the Year was announced; luckily he remembered his wife. Overall, he took home Album of the Year (Traveller), Song of the Year (“Nobody to Blame”), Best Male Vocalist and Best New Male Vocalist. Never mind that he has been working in Nashville long enough to write hits for George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker and Bryan, for whom Stapleton will open two dates at Gillette Stadium in July. This is definitely his year.

Although no further evidence of that was really necessary, late in the show Stapleton performed “Fire Away,” a smoldering duet with his wife, Morgane, that was everything Florida Georgia Line’s bloodless performance of “Confession” just before it was not: personal, intimate, aching. It would have had no trouble moving tickets to Stapleton’s August 12 show with Hank Williams Jr. at the Woodlands Pavilion if that show hadn’t already been sold out for weeks. The camera even caught Jason Aldean, who would shortly be named Entertainer of the Year, singing along in the crowd.

Then CBS cut to yet another commercial for Ram Trucks, which starred…Chris Stapleton. Never mind the awards hardware, the surest sign you’ve made it in country music these days has to be your own truck commercial. But that doesn’t make Stapleton a sellout by any means; it just means he’s officially no longer country music’s resident underdog. He's made it. But if his success means the ACM starts nominating folks like Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price somewhere down the line, then it might really be time to start paying attention to these country awards shows.

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