Like many Kentuckians, I’m all smiles today over the multiple wins by our own Chris Stapleton last night at the 49th Country Music Association Awards. But it’s not for perhaps obvious reasons.
Stapleton’s music runs against almost every commercial trend Nashville otherwise celebrated at the ceremony – so much so that victories for his highly traditional music in the album, new artist and male vocalist of the year categories are genuinely shocking for a genre that has turned its back so shamelessly on its past.
Maybe there are a few old souls left at the CMA that recall when country music wasn’t just another faceless form of poster boy pop (which is likely). Maybe Nashville is finally ready to return to its roots and get behind songs that are genuinely country in feel and narrative (which is highly unlikely). Maybe it’s all a fluke – meaning Stapleton has been picked out as a novelty by Nashville to promote a reflection of faith in tradition that will be purposely short lived (which is extremely likely).
None of this takes away from the grand night Stapleton had. Awards shows offer some of the best publicity – and, to many industry ears, validity – for an artist largely shunned by radio. To airwave kings like Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean, stylistic polar opposites of Stapleton, a CMA win translates into little more than bigger bragging rights. Given also the frequency of country awards programs, their impact on a career is usually just another notch in the proverbial belt.
But for Stapleton, still a new find for mainstream audiences despite years as an established songwriter, the impact of these wins will be considerable. What it means firstly is this morning many eager fans have woken up to what we knew here in Kentucky all along – that in a country world ruled by chart numbers, image and pop accessibility, Stapleton isn’t some contrived, corporate Nashville foot soldier. He’s a real deal singer and writer championing true country songcraft more than any commercially visible artist since Dwight Yoakam. That should make enthusiasts of all Kentucky grown music feel justifiably proud.