If – heaven forbid – Chris Stapleton was to leave this world tomorrow, you can bet your best Strat that the Country Music Association (CMA) would include him in their annual tribute-to-lost-stars segment. But then again you can hedge your old Gibson that the Americana Music Association (AMA) would do likewise.
And here lies the heart of the definition dilemma currently dividing country music, a division highlighted last week with the extraordinary decision of the CMA not to recognise three of country music’s greatest singer-songwriters – John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver – in its annual tribute to recently-deceased artists.
The only rationale for such a snub is the CMA did not perceive the trio to be “country enough” to qualify. In other words, they weren’t from the “Stand By Your Man” school of country music.
Stapleton has, in recent years, planted a foot in each camp. His duet, with Justin Timberlake, of “Tennessee Whiskey” at the 2015 CMA Awards instantly won over the hearts of the foot-stomping traditionalists, while 12 months later he was named Artist of the Year at the AMA Awards, largely due to his quadruple-platinum album Traveller.
The release of his fourth album Starting Over in mid-November only serves to establish him as the leading “cross-over” country artist of his age!
The album is now at the top of the AMA’s weekly radio-play album charts, after debuting at number two behind Sturgill Simpson’s genre-rework bluegrass album, Cuttin’ Grass Vol 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions). There is no doubt that Starting Over’s status as an “Americana” album is helped by the inclusion of two splendid Guy Clark covers – a rocking “Worry B Gone” and the more gentile “Old Friends.”
And perhaps there was no better definition of Stapleton as a genre-busting artist than by Holly Gleason who wrote in American Songwriter: “Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over is merely a masterwork of country soul stretched over a frame of lean blues/rock.”
But then how would you define a melodic weepie called “Maggie’s Song” which maps the life and death of a delightful little dog called Maggie who was rescued after being abandoned in a shopping cart? The Grammy winner told NPR’s Noel King: “I wrote that song the day after our Maggie passed away. We had her for 14 years and I miss her quite a bit. I’m not really a dog person either, that’s worth saying. But I loved that dog for sure. Every word of that song is just a true thing.”
Stapleton had a hand in writing 11 of the 14 tracks on Starting Over, the three exceptions being the two Guy Clark tracks and John Fogerty’s easy-on-the-ear Blue Moon Swamp song “Joy Of My Life,” which gets a feel-good, soothing, somewhat-acoustic treatment.
The album’s signature song is clearly the title track which was released as a single some time ago and reached #1 on the AMA singles chart. “Starting Over" is described by one critic as “a rich portrayal of partnership” and, fittingly, his wife Morgane Stapleton provides soft contrasting harmony to his gritty baritone delivery.
There is a message song – a rock-fused “Watch You Burn” – which Stapleton co-wrote with electric guitarist Mike Campbell. It is directed at Stephen Paddock, the gunman who fired more than 1,000 rounds into the crowd attending the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017. At least 60 people died in what was the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in modern American history.
Stapleton was not at the music event: I wasn’t there, I didn’t see/ I had friends in your company/If I could snap my finders, if I could flick a switch/I’d make that last bullet first, you son of a bitch. This lyrical tirade is directed at the fact that the gunman shot himself immediately after the attack.
But it is the final - probably the most rhythmic - track “Nashville, TN” which triggered immediate questions from the critics, with such provocative lyrics : So Long, Nashville, Tennessee/You can’t have what’s left of me/And as far as I can tell/It’s high time, I wish you well.
Does this mean what it says?
Stapleton told NPR: “That song didn’t necessarily happen in the course of making this record, but certainly, when we had our moments on the CMA’s, with Justin Timberlake, where things kind of blew up for us, our lives were changed. The bus starts coming by with tourists twice a day – you know, 11 am and 2 pm – and you’re out in the front yard trying to kick a ball. A dude shows up in your driveway from North Carolina because he hunted you down someway. No one has ever done anything malicious to me, but it’s a little unnerving when you spend 38 years of your life in relative anonymity.”
Rolling Stone provided the most pertinent response to any speculation: “Should Stapleton ever really break out of his comfort zone, Music City may end up following him to his next destination anyway.”
And what if that destination was Austin? Well that’s a whole new chapter in the definition debacle!
Editor Crossroads - Americana Music Appreciation