OK, Now What?
November 6, 2015
The CMAs. Wow. Just wow. What a surprising, magical night.
A night for people who like to say "I told you so." A night where an artist with a special voice and unique musical skills received a heavy dose of vindication after being mostly ignored by radio, posting inauspicious album sales and who was heretofore considered a niche act. A night - Country's biggest night, we were constantly reminded - which yielded multiple awards to a previously unknown artist (to most viewers) who came out of nowhere after toiling in obscurity, in spite of previous critical admiration. A night when America watched, was duly impressed, and afterwards, collectively asked "Who the hell IS that?" Now, everybody knows what Nashville music industry experts and tastemakers have realized for years. Whew! The general public finally "gets it."
Of course, I'm referring to Alison Krauss and her surprising four CMA award wins - in 1995.
Stick around this business for a while and you'll see it all. Stay longer, and you'll see it all again.
Don't misunderstand: This is not to pooh-pooh or downplay Wednesday's accomplishments of Chris Stapleton at the 2015 CMA Awards. He owned the night - in fact, that night was his bitch! Three awards (Album, New Artist, Male Vocalist) and teaming with Justin Timberlake for the night's oh-wow, OMG, HFS, signature, takeaway moment. I watched in utter amazement as those two delivered one of the most powerful musical moments I've ever seen on live television.
Additionally, I've had the privilege of watching Stapleton in concert three times this year; even Timberlake-less, he's a magnetic talent - an absolute beast of a singer - whose live performance is actually stronger than what's on the album if that's humanly possible, because the album is un-effing-believable. In fact, "Traveller" is not only CMA's Album of the Year, but probably the Grammy's too; one that will for sure make my year-end best-of list, and which deserves to be on many all-time Country album polls, as well.
All that said and all those awards later, it leaves me wondering: what does it mean going forward, as it relates to Country radio and the greater formatic landscape? An abrupt movement toward the traditional, ushering out our current pop-driven core sound? Does the Chris Stapleton light go on? Are programmers smacking their foreheads in an "I coulda had a V-8" moment proclaiming, "Damn, I better get that on the air!" Does it actually mean anything at all?
The immediate, real-time reaction to Stapleton's CMA night on social media was about what you'd expect and by that, I mean local ER and trauma centers were probably overcrowded with broken feet and ankles late Wednesday night due to widespread bandwagon jumping. Everybody wants to be part of what is instantly cool, or show how much they always believed in the guy and his music when all others doubted. "Now radio will finally pull its head out of their ass," many fist-pumpers said - even radio people! OK, fine. But let's be honest. If so many of those Tweeters and posters and believers really backed Stapleton like their aspirational cyber-pledges proclaimed, then Stapleton would have been the evening's front-runner for gawd's sake.
I give the general promo people population a pass for their defiant, "told ya so," and "See?! Now people HAVE to play this guy" Tweets and posts. Because that's just who they are and how they're wired, and for any of us who've done record promotion with a challenging yet brilliant left of center artist, the term "But for the grace of God, there go I" immediately comes to mind. And, in fairness to the Mercury team, their messages were ones of joy, pride and support for Stapleton, whom they have passionately advocated since getting the project.
"Authenticity, Artistry, Recalibration"
So, aside from all that social media bullshit, it does beg the larger, relevant question about how and if this impacts the format's direction.
"There is no question that last night's show was an industry statement the likes of which we've not seen in some time," said KILT/Houston APD Chris Huff. "Anyone who's not given Chris [Stapleton] serious consideration previously will be forced to do so now," he added. "That may not necessarily translate into a sudden course correction though. Ultimately time, and the audience, will tell us whether last night was the start of a 'movement' or just a very historic night."
At the UMG Nashville CMA after party, I briefly chatted with Keith Urban about it. He felt was it was not only an historic event, but one that could potentially trigger a seismic shift for Country music. Keep in mind, this was a micro-conversation that occurs when you say a quick hello amid a throng of people who want to meet Keith Urban, but it was so typical of him to be instantly and concisely thoughtful.
I reached out to Urban the next day and asked him to comment further, since I wasn't exactly taking notes at the after party (#awkward). He pinged me back, saying, "For me it felt like Chris' wins last night were, at the least, a temperature reading of how the industry wants authenticity, artistry, and some kind of recalibration of what defines our genre in 2015."
Exactly what that is has been hard to pinpoint in the past couple of years, what with Bro-Country, the infusion of R&B and Hip Hop sounds, and the continuing Rock influence - all of what I have recently referred to as a wild, wild West musical cycle, to a large degree. Additionally, the format's programmers have inched closer toward a more Top 40 method of spinning music in higher rotations. It all seems to be working though, as 18-34 shares have grown, 25-54 shares are mostly steady and Country is more popular than ever.
That scenario has been a challenging one for a guy like Chris Stapleton, says KSCS and KPLX/Dallas programmer JR Schumann. "I think Country radio's (air quote) 'issue' with Chris is, where does it fit? Is it mass appeal or is it niche? What Nashville did with that [Timberlake] performance was thrust him into mass appeal, using one of the biggest stars in music with JT, ultimately giving him an endorsement that says, 'this is cool, I'm excited to be here, and this is someone you should know.'"
KZSN/Wichita PD Brian Jennings says taking that momentum and running with it is fundamentally right. "Seizing a hot trend is always a good idea. People may not know Chris, but they're curious. When you explode overnight with curiosity seekers, that's enough for me to join in. Will the single ("Nobody To Blame") work? Probably not. But right now, I'm doing myself a favor by spinning it and growing the story."
As for whether anything definitive or long-term results from all this, Schumann cautions: "I think there will be people that try and force it, and that will be a problem - 'OMG, he wins three CMAs - everything needs to be like Chris Stapleton, we need an artist who sounds like him.' That's what Country does; somebody has success with something and suddenly there are six of them."
Mass Appeal: A Winding, Twisty Road
Artists, too, are acutely aware of what Schumann just described, as Keith Urban explained to me: "Any Pop fusion/current fad cycle in our genre always has a use-by date, or rather, it burns itself out due to the unrelenting cloning of a sound, a theme, a style etc. Slowly but surely, it gets artistically thinner and thinner until the audience is hungry for something REAL! And along comes Stapleton. It's the need for artistic expression - and not quota - that creates albums like 'Traveller'...the stars align, and there's magic on an album."
After Krauss shocked the Country world with her dominating CMA night in '95, she was nominated for 23 more CMAs over 13 years, winning five. She also went on to win 24 of her 27 career Grammys, post-'95-CMAs. But Krauss didn't parlay that magical CMA night into superstardom or mass appeal Country success, and frankly, I never got the sense that she cared all that much.
That's because this thing we call mass appeal is a winding, twisty road. Some artists pursue it with passion; others intersect with it by coincidence. Krauss and mass appeal collided in spectacular, unexpected fashion one night in '95 - today, I guess we'd call it sort of a hookup. But ultimately, Krauss just continued being Krauss. Country went along on its way too; in spite of her unique brand of music, it didn't really change the direction or sound of Country music.
Similarly, says Schumann, "Chris Stapleton is not going to do anything different. I believe he'll continue to be Chris Stapleton - there are just a whole lot more people with him on their radar."
Agreed. You listen to Chris Stapleton as an artist - and I say as an artist, because clearly, as a songwriter, he's capable of writing mainstream songs for mass appeal superstar artists in his sleep - but as an artist, nothing about him suggests he'll change who he is and what he sounds like. If mainstream and mass appeal wants to keep Chris Stapleton around, they'll need to make some serious lifestyle adjustments, because neither seems to be a priority for him.
Rather, what seems to be Stapleton's motivation is the artist's creative compass. As it turns out, thankfully, it has a lot to do with a need for expression, according to Keith Urban, who helped shed a light on that point for us: "Bono once said 'I'm not saying I know how to make a great album ... but I know how to create the conditions where one might happen.' I love that, because it's intangible. But at the least, it's borne of a NEED to create and express. To keep defining and articulating the inspirations that flow through us. If we stay open, curious, and HUNGRY!"