With all due respect to the Academy of Country Music, they got it wrong when they awarded the inaugural ACM Album of the Decade award to Luke Bryan’s Crash My Party.
There was only one album in the last 10 years that truly deserves to be called the album of the decade. An album that rocketed to the top of the charts and caused a seismic shift in the country music coming from Nashville. An album that changed the course of country music in the last half of the decade.
Chris Stapleton’s Traveller.
To understand the impact that Traveller had on the last half of the decade, we need to start by looking at the state of country music in the first half. One of the biggest songs of the last 10 years, Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” came out in 2012 and pushed bro-country to the top of the charts. By 2014, the top songs on the charts included songs like Cole Swindell’s “Chillin’ It,” “Burnin’ It Down” by Jason Aldean, and Florida Georgia Line’s “This is How We Roll.” Not a lot of groundbreaking stuff there.
Sam Hunt also released Montevallo in 2014 and pushed country music even farther from its traditional sound. Now, I’m not shitting on Sam Hunt or Montevallo – I like the album, and I like Sam’s music. But make no mistake, this was a different kind of sound that was taking over country music in 2014, with guys like Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line singing over snap tracks to lead the way. And what other album was leading the way for bro country in the early 2010s? That’s right – Luke Bryan’s Crash My Party, with singles like “That’s My Kind of Night” and “I See You.”
2015 started out looking like it was going to be more of the same. Sam Hunt and Luke Bryan were going back and forth at the top of the charts with singles like “Take Your Time,” “House Party” and “Kick the Dust Up.” Thomas Rhett released “Crash and Burn” (written, ironically, by Chris Stapleton), and Florida Georgia Line had songs like “Sun Daze” and “Sippin’ on Fire.”
But one performance in November would stop country music in its tracks and change the course of an entire genre of music for the rest of the decade.
One face-melting performance at the 2015 CMA Awards introduced Chris Stapleton to the world.
After he stepped off the stage with Justin Timberlake, the rest of the world finally knew Nashville’s best kept secret: Chris Stapleton is the real fucking deal. Everybody in the industry already knew what an incredible songwriter he was: Chris had already written hits for the biggest names in country music like Luke Bryan (“Drink a Beer”) and Kenny Chesney (“Never Wanted Nothing More”). They knew that he had one of the best voices in country music, with his soulful, gravelly voice that blends Merle Haggard with Ray Charles in his own bluesy, southern rock sound. And they knew that he could absolutely shred on the guitar.
But after that night in November, the rest of the world knew it too. (Oh, and Chris Stapleton also happened to win all three of the awards that he was nominated for that night – Album of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year and New Artist of the Year).
After the performance at the CMA Awards, people started to discover more of Chris Stapleton’s work – mainly, his debut album that had been released in May of that same year. Traveller went to the top of the charts, going on to become the best-selling country album of 2016 – the year AFTER it was released. Even today, almost 5 years after the album was first released, Traveller is STILL sitting at #12 on the iTunes country album chart.
But what is it about Traveller that makes it unlike anything else coming out of Nashville in the last decade? It’s simple: Traveller was a course correction. At the height of the bro-country, skinny jeans, beer-and-pickup truck era of country music, along comes a guy from Kentucky with a long beard and a cowboy hat making music that sounded like it was straight out of the Appalachian Mountains. It was unlike anything else on the radio. And people couldn’t get enough of it.
There was the song that everybody heard first – “Tennessee Whiskey.” Stapleton’s soulful, guitar-heavy cover of an old George Jones song got everybody hooked. But the rest of the album kept us coming back for more. Songs like “Fire Away,” which touches on themes of mental illness and abuse. There was the up-tempo “Parachute” and the self-loathing “Nobody to Blame.” There was the rocking “Outlaw State of Mind” leading into Chris showing off his absolutely badass voice on “Sometimes I Cry.” There was steel guitar and fiddle and songs about heartbreak and drinking and getting stoned – you know, songs like they used to make in country music.
That’s what there WAS. But even more importantly is what there WASN’T: There wasn’t a single snap track. There weren’t songs about bonfires or Fireball. There weren’t any mentions of driving to the lake with your girl in your pickup truck. (The only girl on this album was Chris’s wife, Morgane, providing the harmonies). No, this album was different than anything else that was coming out of Nashville at the time.
But most importantly: People were buying it.
The thing about the country music industry is that the people who make the decisions aren’t really willing to take big risks. If something’s working, you can bet your ass that they’re going to keep doing the same thing until it doesn’t work anymore – so if that means more snap tracks and bro-country, that’s what they’re going to do. But Chris Stapleton disrupted all of that. Here’s this guy who looks nothing like the pretty boys on the radio, who sounds nothing like the pretty boys on the radio, who’s singing songs that are completely different than anything on the radio – songs that have a more traditional country music sound than anything we’ve heard in the last decade – and he’s crushing everybody else around him. Maybe he was on to something.
It wasn’t an overnight shift in the landscape, but sure enough, the bro-country started to fade as we began to get more of the “traditional” style of country music coming from Nashville. In 2016, a guy named Jon Pardi went to the top of the album charts with his album California Sunrise, complete with the fiddles, steel guitars and Bakersfield sound. Another guy from Chris Stapleton’s home state of Kentucky, Sturgill Simpson, also went to #1 with A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth. And Brothers Osborne released their debut album, Pawn Shop, that proved Chris Stapleton isn’t the only guy who can shred a guitar in country music.
The latter half of the decade also saw the rise of guys like Luke Combs, whose old-school country sound has resulted in basically everything he touches turning to gold. Tyler Childers, yet another product of Kentucky, provided another win for Stapleton’s Appalachian style of country with his album Purgatory, and the follow-up Country Squire.
Already-established artists Justin Moore, who had tried to ride the bro-country wave in the mid 2010s, suddenly went back the other way (he called his 2019 album Late Nights and Longnecks “the most traditional country album I’ve ever made.”) Cole Swindell went from “Chillin’ It” and “Let Me See Ya Girl” to tearjerkers like “Break Up in the End” and “Dad’s Old Number.” There was even a shift in Luke Bryan’s music back to songs that sound more like his early stuff, songs like “What Makes You Country” and “Most People Are Good.”
And who’s missing from the charts as we close out the decade? Florida Georgia Line. In fact, 2019 was the first year since “Cruise” was released in 2012 that Florida Georgia Line didn’t reach the top of the country airplay charts.
All of these changes in four short years. A course correction for country music. The resurgence of fiddles, steel guitars and traditional country music. And it’s all thanks to one album: Chris Stapleton’s Traveller.