God bless Chris Stapleton, the putative savior of Real Country Music, who both looks and sounds the part. Specifically, he looks like the villain in an A-Team–Dukes of Hazzard crossover episode, or like Bob Seger went undercover as a pimp; his raspy foghorn of a voice sounds like various power tools expertly consoling you over too many glasses of whiskey he distilled himself in his fancy hat.
Look, sorry — I’m just a little tired of seeing the guy on TV. It wasn’t always this way. Stapleton is a bluegrass-band vet and ace songwriter for various Nashville luminaries far cleaner-cut and way less compelling than himself; in May 2015, he released his own debut solo album, the bluesy, gritty, playfully workmanlike Traveller to modest, NPR-type acclaim. But in November, at the CMA Awards — the Country Grammys, basically — he inexplicably wrecked shop, swiping trophies for New Artist of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, and Album of the Year. (Plus he did a lavish duet with Justin Timberlake, which may be the single quickest way to make America like you). It made for fascinating television: a burly, hirsute, winsome rando kicking the asses of the increasingly vapid, skinny, bro-y, pop-crossover-minded superstars who’d strangled the genre nearly to death. It had the feel of a Nashville-ordered palace coup against itself: Please ditch all those other clowns we sold you and worship this guy instead.
And it worked, almost too well. Traveller shot to no. 1 on the Billboard album chart, and Stapleton has spent the past half year lining up big-shot festival gigs (including Bonnaroo this past weekend), cutting Ram ads, and collecting yet more awards. (Country music has so many awards shows that some of ’em seem to have categories for performances at other awards shows.) The ripple effect has been hilarious — once-uncontested ur-bro acts like Florida Georgia Line are shook — but the praise and sustained prominence have grown tiresome. There he was last week at the CMT Music Awards (seriously, there are too many of these things), picking up the ultra-prestigious (!?) Breakthrough Video of the Year trophy and sucking up most of the post-show-recap oxygen with a fairly snoozy performance of “Parachute,” which he’d already done better on Saturday Night Live. Spend too much time with Traveller, as all this overexposure insists you must, and both the strain and the seams show: a lulling sameness to its myriad exuberant tales of woe, plus his howling voice gets to be a little Extra. It’s a very good album sold to the world as an all-universe classic, which has done it, him, and us enough favors. Country-industry darlings should be subject to term limits, too. We need new blood, and the genre needs a new champion.
You can argue over whether or not Stapleton truly deserved all this shine; what’s inarguable is that at least a half-dozen other country artists deserve it, too. It’s tempting, for example, to hope that they just mount Sturgill Simpson on this bandwagon and keep it rolling. The Kentucky oddball has a smoother, deeper, more artisanal-honeyed voice, and a far more, uh, hallucinogenic outlook, as he flaunted on 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, which sounds like Waylon Jennings powered up on Super Mario Bros. mushrooms. Simpson presses the same Real Country Music buttons for the same NPR-type people, and his third album, this April’s absurdly lush and bombastic A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, plays out like a Marvel Universe blockbuster version of Stapleton’s Traveller, transcending genre (Otis Redding, Al Green, and peak Vegas Elvis are your spirit animals, all backed by strutting Dap-Kings horns) and this astral plane entirely.
It depends. If you’re feeling grouchy, Sailor’s Guide is pandering, an avalanche of style over substance. (The snare-drum sound alone! Did they pull the snare drum directly out of the suitcase from Pulp Fiction?) But don’t get cocky. “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” is a bizarre and shattering opener, with Simpson summoning his most galactic croon:
Hello, my son
Welcome to earth
May not be my last
But you’ll always be my first
Wish I’d done this 10 years ago
But how could I know
How could I know
THAT THE ANSWER WAS SO EASY
If it hits you right — if you relate in any sense — that last line will burn you to the ground. And then come the horns, and that snare drum, and the blatant Stax thirst, and Simpson starts bellowing big time, and the song’s true message is revealed:
And if sometimes
Daddy has to go away
Please don’t think
That it means I don’t love you
Ohhhh, it’s a Sorry I Have To Tour song, ending on a long, slow, horn-driven fadeout, and the most aggro — the most country — possible interpretation is that you’re hearing it from the adored son’s perspective, that he’s standing on the front porch watching Daddy’s tour bus drive away. That might burn you to the ground, also. But the rest of Sailor’s Guide will build you back up, from the folksy-surrealist fatherly advice (“Don’t let them try to upsell you / There’s a reason they make chocolate and vanilla, too”) to the Navy travelogue where Simpson boisterously lists various ports of call (the words Kuala Lumpur sound majestic tumbling out of his mouth) to the stunt cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”
As Simpson’s stunt covers go, I prefer Metamodern’s moony rewire of the ’80s synth-pop weeper “The Promise,” but it’s a trip here to watch him totally scramble Kurt Cobain’s intent, changing the end of the chorus to “But he don’t know what it means / Don’t know what it means to love someone.” Those last three words are most definitely artistic license — what Kurt actually sings there in the original translates roughly into text as And I say auhhhhhhhhh — but glamorous, romantic audacity is the whole point here. This record is way too indulgent and outlandish and legitimately outsider-y to earn Traveller-style industry-approved disruptor status, but that’s what makes it so perfectly disruptive.
Two records out just this month might have a better shot; better yet, they directly address what remains the genre’s biggest, most nefarious problem: Total Dude Overload. That women have nearly gone extinct on country radio is grim, established fact by now: Witness last year’s ludicrous dustup wherein some radio-biz doofus counseled ratings-minded programmers to “take females out,” as “they’re just not the lettuce in our salad … the tomatoes of our salad are the females.” (Describing the various bros of country radio as “the lettuce in our salad” is an incomprehensibly savage burn, BTW.)
This despite the best country albums of the past five years or so come from folks named Miranda, and Kacey, and Ashley, and Cam, and Caitlin. Miranda Lambert’s already a megastar, and her next album is guaranteed to drone-bomb goofus ex-husband Blake Shelton into oblivion; previous putative country savior Kacey Musgraves has since gone full kitsch, but she’s apparently putting out what’s guaranteed to be a three-yule-log-on-roaring-fire-emoji Christmas album later this year, so that’s dope, too.
If you need a few shots of lethal sass in the meantime, please say hello to Maren Morris, whose favorite curse word is shit or bullshit, and who can do the thing where she name-checks Diddy or starts a song with a Madlib-esque drum loop or otherwise nods to the musical universe outside Tennessee without coming off as a Luke Bryan–caliber herb. (Still hilarious.) Her new album, Hero, starts with “Sugar,” buoyed by an NC-17–rated guitar riff as Morris unfurls a slurred, insouciant, long-voweled Nashville patois — You make the mor-NING glow / Make the roo-STER crow / Get my jui-CES flo-WIN’ — that makes her sound like no one so much as … Rihanna. That Rihanna has not already murdered her tells you that this turns out OK. Next, on “Rich,” Morris sells this joke …
If I had a dime every time that you crossed my mind
Well, I’d basically be sittin’ on a big-ass pile of dimes
… with so much sophistication you’d guess Garry Shandling wrote it. Best of all is “My Church,” where the organist whips up some Sturgill-esque grandiosity as Maren self-harmonizes her way to salvation and elucidates the joys of barreling down the highway listening to classic country — ”When Hank brings the sermon / And Cash leads the choir” — on the radio. The fact Hero falls off somewhat after that one-two-three punch (and the additional fact nobody plays Johnny Cash or Hank Williams on the radio anymore) is trivial: The best country songs describe the world not as it is, but as it was, or as it oughta be. Morris convinces you this place exists, this utopia where the FM dial is dominated by songs like hers, or like Brandy Clark’s “Girl Next Door.”
Big Day in a Small Town, released last Friday, is Clark’s second album — like Stapleton, she’s a biz-connected ace songwriter going for something more modest and personal and, yes, Authentic on her own. (All these people live in Nashville, nominally, save Simpson, who lives on Mars.) But “Girl Next Door” is what Jack Handey would call an Invigorating Face-Slapper, with a classic minimalist-genius, country-song punch line — ”If you want the girl next door / Then go next door” — riding a propulsive dance beat and a tidal wave of blaring angst. It’s perfect for your next anxiety-driven spin class, and it sounds like all 12 songs on her delicate, excellent debut album, 2013’s 12 Stories, blaring from the stereos of 12 different Camaros driven by 12 different garbage dudes smashing into 12 different brick walls.
Most of the rest of the album is softer but just as sharp, in terms of both its bite and its focus. She rhymes drama with mama within two minutes, and later milks maximum comedy out of the clichés that rhyme evokes:
Her mama didn’t know she was nine months late
Been gettin’ on her ’bout gainin’ weight
And now she’s a grandma
Best one-liner: “You son of a bitch / I hope you have a daughter.” Best miserabilist anti-love song that Stevie Nicks and Don Henley should jump on this instant: “You Can Come Over.” Best song Clark’s ever done by orders of magnitude: this one.
You tolerate months of modern country’s reductive, lettuce-spewing bullshit for one thing as good as “Three Kids No Husband,” one moment as startling as the vocal jolt Clark gives the chorus, the reverb-drenched piano pouring out an ocean of pathos for her to float in. This is what Martin Scorsese used to hear when he’d hear Jackson Browne. Like the genre’s best songs, it takes a beloved trope — in this case, the conquered single mother as somehow-unconquerable superhero — and turns it in the light just enough to dazzle you anew.
Country is the best at delivering gut-punch perfection like this, though not always the best at making sure songs this great actually get the airplay, and the airtime, they deserve. Which is extra maddening given that this universe is so small and so insular — or the radio playlists are, anyway. The pinnacle is so tantalizingly within reach if you’re anywhere near the mountain. It’s a thrill that Stapleton has reigned o’er the land for this long, but I yearn to get as tired of Brandy or Maren or Sturgill as I am tired of him right now. You can’t be overrated without being properly rated first. Move over.