Country music purists spend a lot of time complaining about the state of country music radio and the state of the genre as a whole, and while this writer—definitely a purist—agrees, I’m here to tell you that the future of country music is in good hands with Chris Stapleton.
Twenty thousand people packed into USANA Amphitheater to see the singer-songwriter’s All-American Road Show on Saturday night—and one only need to look at the crowd to recognize the artist’s cross-cultural appeal. There were bonafide cowboys, girls in short shorts and band new cowboy boots and people who looked like they’d wandered into the venue after a day on the golf course.
Stapleton isn’t a country artist by strict definition. His band is a ‘n‘ roll band, him on lead guitar, a rhythm guitar, a bass and a drummer—that’s it. There’s no fiddle. No piano. No pedal steel. What makes Stapleton country is his Kentucky twang and more importantly the simple declaration from Stapleton that he’s country. The music that he played on the stage, however, was clearly drawn from many influences.
I heard guitar riffs that belonged in ZZ Top songs, soulful wailing that would have been at home in ’60s Motown, old fashioned five bar blues, psychedelic sounds and ballads with lyrics that could have easily fit in the catalog of any number of hair metal bands. Hell, he even sampled “Freebird” at one point.
You see, Stapleton’s country is a gritty and dirty country—and in the true tradition of country music there were plenty of songs about drinking, smoking weed and broken hearts. And Stapleton was easily able to connect with the crowd, encouraging them to sing along and repeat choruses. His band rocked out with extended solos and guitar-heavy riffs. But there were also moments of what Stapleton himself affectionately called “hillbilly stuff,” beginning with the opening acts and continuing through the show.
Brent Cobb opened the evening, and joined Stapleton onstage for a song later in the evening after the headliner called him “one of the best singer-songwriters out there right now.”
But it was the second opener, Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives, who really got the evening going. It’s a shame that Stapleton’s crowd doesn’t have the same affection for Stuart’s music that he does—Stuart is country music royalty and as Stapleton said when he brought the bandana-as-an-ascot-wearing troubadour back onto the stage for two songs during his set, telling the crowd that he’s “as fine of a steward for country music that has lived or ever will live,” and literally embracing the legend.
You see, it’s Stapleton’s deference to the musicians who have come before him that makes him a real country artist. He seems to understand what many in the crowd seemed not to understand—country music is nothing if not a mish-mash of all the music that came before. And while he could be the kind of contemporary artist who spends all their time trying to please everybody all the time resulting in the the lowest common denominator of lyrics—talk of pick up trucks, tractors and red Solo cups. He’s instead decided to elevate the entire genre, and I think he’s doing it on purpose.
So in a way, Chris Stapleton is a country music pioneer. And maybe the savior we’ve all been waiting for. No pressure, Chris.
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