There’s no denying the transformative power that a show like Saturday Night Live can have for an artist. It has jump-started careers, ruined them, and helped show us the finest in up-and-coming music since the 1970s. Its place as a cultural icon notwithstanding, Chris Stapleton holds a lot of cards in his hand as he plans to take to that iconic stage this Saturday.
There has been plenty of hand-wringing and hypothesizing and debate over what Stapleton will actually be able to do for (or to, however you feel about it) country music. It’s easy enough to point out the scraggly beard and weird-looking cowboy hat, not to mention the incredible pipes and songwriting ability, and see a truly distinct type of artist.
Country music isn’t frequently showcased on SNL – appearances from Blake Shelton don’t count, at least not now that he’s on The Voice – but when it does, it's generally pretty damn transformative. In 2003, the Dixie Chicks defiantly appeared on the show in the midst of the George W. Bush dust-up that got them run out of country music on the proverbial rail. At that point, it seemed like the Chicks might have been soaking up their last few minutes of fame.
Instead, Maines and her bandmates were introducing their sound to the adult-contemporary charts that would eventually embrace them with open arms for the blockbuster release of Taking The Long Way just three years later. To be sure, the Chicks knew their time in country had an expiration date and were looking for a new audience, one that wouldn’t threaten to kill them for expressing their political beliefs.
To be sure, Stapleton isn’t in the same situation. Everyone in the music world is showing him love, with the notable exception of program directors on country radio. While it’s true that Stapleton has seen more mainstream radio success than say, Jason Isbell, it certainly hasn’t been enough to sustain a star this prominently on the rise. Like the Chicks, will Stapleton use these opportunities to find a new audience and walk away from the genre altogether?
In 2016, genre lines are blurrier than ever. It’s frankly unproductive and boring to argue about what is or is not country music, that’s for sure. Everyone has an idea of what this genre should be, and in most cases, Stapleton’s sound fits squarely into even the poppiest pop-country fan’s tastes. We can all agree that he's a brilliant artist, but is he the one that will communicate country music’s future to an audience that generally doesn’t give a shit about it?
For the past few years, that formula has been simple – if you don’t want to be compared to garbage country music, don’t call yourself country. That’s an easy enough solution to a pervasive problem, but it’s ridiculous to assume that the dissolution of country music, particularly its more traditional components, as a genre isn’t problematic for the artists who record that style of music. Pop-country and country have become synonymous, and that spells real trouble for the commercial prospects of artists like Stapleton.
Perhaps more importantly, does Stapleton even want to be a country artist? At this point, country’s most important artists are happy enough to trot off to Americana with their country bona fides in tow. With this appearance on Saturday Night Live, Stapleton is poised to do the exact same. If the country-music establishment doesn’t fall in line, Stapleton will happily take his talents to the audience that will have him. After that blockbuster performance on the CMA Awards earlier this year, it’s hard to say that Stapleton wouldn’t easily land on his feet into both pop-folk and Americana.
The only thing should give Stapleton fans pause about that possibility is the fact that he is well-entrenched in the Nashville hierarchy. He is a known quantity, a popular songwriter, and a generally well-liked artist. He’s got label support, and an actual opportunity to succeed as a country artist, unlike those whose success has been viewed as ‘unprecedented,’ like Aaron Watson. The fact that last year’s biggest country-music successes both bucked genre trends and were largely independent certainly doesn’t bode well for the establishment.
The future of both Chris Stapleton and country music is uncertain, but if the genre’s refusal to get with the program and get behind music that people (and critics!) actually want to hear continues, only Stapleton’s is looking particularly bright. In this case, let’s hope that Dwight Yoakam, who appeared on SNL at the tail-end of his mainstream country success, isn’t an allegory for what’s going to happen to Stapleton. More than that, let's hope that Coachella performance he booked later this year seal the deal.