Predicting Country’s Next Chris Stapleton
For every Chris Stapleton there are a dozen rising stars who see their image beneath his hat and beard. He represents hope for the genre, and for newcomers led to believe their big, soulful voices and 20,000-league-deep-lyrics won't be able to find space between pithy party songs or overcooked love songs on country radio.
So, who is the next Chris Stapleton? There are some worthy candidates.
First, you need to understand how Stapleton became a CMA and Grammy winner and Saturday Night Live star. For years he was an unquestioned favorite in Music City inner-circles. In addition to being a hit songwriter for stars like Kenny, George and Thomas Rhett, he was the most named when asked about country music’s top vocalist. This is more than just conjecture. Taste of Country polled artists at the 2015 ACM Awards, and pre-Traveller, Stapleton won. It wasn’t close.
Of course a brilliant country album is the reason he’s trending on Facebook, but that he had so many friends pulling for him helped, as it always does in country music. His star is burning brightest right now. Talent of his caliber rarely marries well with commercial appeal, and Stapleton isn’t willing to sell out. He won’t bend much for a stylist. He’s not going to clean up for the cameras, and he’s not going to play the endless free radio shows required of most new artists. He’d rather be at home with his kids, writing great country songs. Can you blame him?
The comparisons to Jamey Johnson are endless. Beyond the physical, both became known as brutally honest, brilliant songwriters willing to explore the depths of sorrow, but unwilling to dance when the man in the corner office orders it. Both are known as sweet, sweet men to friends and family, but neither do the media thing very well. From a journalist’s perspective, Stapleton is the kind of guy you hope to have an hour with because you’ll spend the first 10 minutes pretending not to be afraid of him. He skipped the Grammys red carpet, but did run through the CMA radio row gauntlet prior to the show in November. In that short amount of time, he’s the antithesis of Kelsea Ballerini on camera and on the microphone.
It’s great to think that in two years Stapleton will be aiming for his fourth straight No. 1 hit while pushing his second album toward platinum status. He's changed the way the radio sounds, but not the business, and certainly not mass-media culture. Pretty matters. Funny counts. Twitter and Snapchat help. Truck songs sell out arenas.
An artist like Drake White stands to walk through doors Stapleton has opened, and he knows it. White admits he felt a good kind of jealousy when Stapleton had his CMA Awards day last year. He saw himself on that stage, and it's easy to see why. With a big, growling Alabama voice, White seems to almost be preaching from a pulpit during songs like “It Feels Good.” He’s not quite the household name Stapleton was, but Zac Brown has become a friend and mentor.
Ashley Monroe could be next. Before Stapleton was Kacey Musgraves, a similarly talented songwriter dismissed by radio despite intense loyalty from fans and friends in the Nashville community. People pulled for Musgraves, and they’ll pull for Monroe. Miranda Lambert is her bestie, and she was nominated for a Grammy for a song she cut with Blake Shelton. Vince Gill is a fan and friend (and her producer), which never hurts. Most importantly Monroe makes a listener hurt in the same way Stapleton does on songs like "Whiskey and You" and "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore." She’s his female equivalent, and should voters begin recognizing her music with nominations, you’ll see a dozen A-List artists championing her on social media.
Gill is no newcomer, but the timing of his latest record makes him a candidate. Down to My Last Habit is a wonderful collection of 12 songs that shows all sides of the singer’s personality. In a 30 minute conversation about the music, he’ll shock you with bawdy jokes and start crying. Heck, he may do that in five minutes! Friends? Gill’s got ‘em. With George Strait chasing the sunset, there’s room for a seasoned veteran to return to the radio, and if Gill shows a willingness to chase it hard for a few months, he could be holding a CMA Award come November.
Another act eyeing the Next Chris Stapleton title is Jaren Johnston and the Cadillac Three. There is not a band or group of artists in country music that the collective is more excited to join on stage. Superstars geek out if they get to play a song with Johnston, Neil Mason and Kelby Ray.
The music has held them back. Songs like “The South” and “Party Like You” are thrilling, raw, smartly-penned jams, but not award bait. Those seem to go to other hitmakers — “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” and “Raise ‘Em Up” are two examples. If somehow the trio could find heart without sacrificing the raw power of their sound, it’d change the genre.
Perhaps in a year we’ll be asking, Who Is Country’s Next Cadillac Three? Who Is Country's Next Drake White?
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