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How to Make It As an Old-School Country Star

Chris Stapleton and Zac Brown are two (very different) traditionalists in an industry full of bro-country. They are both worth your time.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Zac Brown and Chris Stapleton are both burly, hirsute country superstars with throwback impulses and bazooka voices. As humans, in dim enough light, you might mistake them for twins, their shared DNA a robust double helix of bourbon and venison. As artists, it sounds like they’re in different genres, or playing different sports, or at the very least illustrating the difference between a Heisman Trophy candidate and a Super Bowl MVP. Your crabbiest uncle or aunt — the one who loves country music but despises the bro-saturated modern shit — would love both these men, for wildly different reasons, the way you can love both Duck Dynasty and The Revenant.

Brown is the Heisman and Duck Dynasty guy, proudly and even honorably. The Georgia native’s Zac Brown Band has been a granola-and-grassroots phenomenon for a solid decade now, jam-band grime with a light glaze of Nashville glitz, a gleaming shotgun that only fires hacky sacks. Fiddles and flip-flops, Bonnaroo and Margaritaville. The band will tour comfortably for decades hence as the house band of the SEC. They won the 2010 Best New Artist Grammy, and have amassed enough country-radio staples to justify a 2014 release called Greatest Hits So Far. That ellipses is straining, but only slightly. Lately they’ve gotten a little wayward and incoherent in their pop-crossover ambitions; their new record, Welcome Home, out this week, is a back-to-our-roots retreat. It is, unsurprisingly, super cheesy, but it’s a warm, rich, soothing cheese — a Velveeta hot spring worth wading in for awhile, so long as you climb out before you get too nauseous.

Stapleton is the Super Bowl and Revenant guy, a humble and haggard songwriter whose growly 2015 solo debut, Traveller, unexpectedly elevated him to the perilous title of Country Music Savior. He’s been Mr. Prestige ever since: For a long spell he won every single music-industry award with “Country” anywhere in the title, an ascent that went from thrilling to a little tiresome. A backlash seemed inevitable. His second album, From a Room: Volume 1, released last week, is a stubborn and austere restatement of purpose, meat and potatoes and no cheese whatsoever. It is shockingly, unambiguously great.

Stapleton’s head-to-head win is not necessarily Brown’s loss. The best songs from both these guys hammer at the same pleasure centers from opposite directions: Zac a lowbrow veteran still capable of upping his game, Chris a highbrow supernova learning how to justify his suddenly sterling reputation. Both likely regard themselves as valiant antidotes to all the skinny, vapid, rapper-pandering knuckleheads still apt to clog up the Billboard charts and radio playlists. Brown will even occasionally say so outright, or at least once he described a hot mess of a smash Luke Bryan single as “the worst song I’ve ever heard.”

That sass goes both ways and flows from everywhere: Plenty of Stapleton fans likely consider ZBB a cornball atrocity for the cargo-pants set, and some ZBB fans likely find Stapleton to be not a little ponderous and dull. But both artists bring a welcome mix of old-school gravitas and modern-man volatility to the big time, spicing up a country-radio salad that can always use a few more headstrong weirdos. (And like 10 times more female artists, but these guys aren’t much help there.) They’re a couple of surly old bears set loose upon 21st-century Nashville’s never-ending keg party. Sometimes the result is simply carnage. But often, carnage is the best possible outcome.

Zac Brown Band’s Greatest Hits So Far… is worth a listen as a pleasantly benign Red State utopia, for good and ill, the ill just as illuminating as the good. The band’s biggest and dorkiest hit, “Chicken Fried,” is an idyllic backyard laundry line of sunlit clichés: cold beer, worn jeans, “the love in my woman’s eyes,” etc. His idea of romance is “And her pretty legs go to heaven every time”; his idea of heaven is “I got my toes in the water / Ass in the sand.” He has, to date, one transcendently great song, the grandiose power ballad “Colder Weather.”

One song this fantastic in a decade buys you a whole lotta howlers, and Brown intends to cash in. His tolerable songs tend to have suspiciously similar melodies (plainspoken) and themes (even plainer-spoken); his intolerable songs are impressively, mercifully singular. (Holy moly to “Overnight,” his 2012 Marvin Gaye–channeling sex jam with Trombone Shorty.) Much of the ZBB’s last record, 2015’s Jekyll + Hyde, radiated that discomfort — the weird cover alone gave off eerie Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines vibes. Brown did a fake swing song with Sara Bareilles, and a fake hard-rock song with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, and then sequenced them back-to-back. The whole thing felt like a misbegotten attempt to sneak the band onto Ellen and Monday Night Raw simultaneously.

Welcome Home, their new one, is an album-length apology, the intent plain from the song titles alone: “Roots,” “Real Thing,” “Start Over.” There’s a peppy, Doobie Brothers–gone-country jam called “Family Table” that is literally about a table; “All the Best,” is an austere and bittersweet coffeehouse-folk duet with former Country Music Savior Kacey Musgraves that makes fine use of her gentle, biting wit. (Not to mention the gentle, biting wit of John Prine, who wrote the song. It’s a leap in quality that nearly upends the album, though in Brown’s defense, nobody else in his league is in Prine’s league, either.)

There is one very bad song here — the ersatz-mariachi jam “Start Over” — and nine serviceable ones, designed to make you roll your eyes on the first 99 listens but tear up during the 100th. The tender and treacly ballad “My Old Man” does indeed sound like a Father’s Day card taught itself to fingerpick, and eventually it will get to you if you let it. Brown’s strategy is to throw as many feelings at you as possible; through the law of averages, you’re bound to catch a few of them eventually.

The Zac Brown Band expertly plays to Nashville’s baser instincts; Chris Stapleton will remain the reigning Country Music Savior so long as he keeps pandering to the town’s loftier ones. Traveller was a solid B+ and NPR favorite that withstood all the post-coronation hype, but couldn’t help but wilt slightly. Stapleton’s howling, booming voice is like five bazookas duct-taped together, but it can flatten his listeners and his songs alike, reducing them to virile fireworks shows, all heat but no light. But From a Room: Volume 1 — at a modest nine songs in 32 minutes, with Volume 2 allegedly coming later this year — treads much lighter and hits three times as hard. “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” was a big early-’80s hit for Willie Nelson, and Stapleton’s version plays as a lovely homage, his phrasing lithe and playful despite the heartbroken overtones. The bandanna fits.

From a Room has surly shouters and wry waltzes and bluesy melancholy of both the delicate and indelicate varieties. Most of the best moments are spruced up by Stapleton’s wife and not-so-secret weapon, Morgane, a brash but accommodating vocalist herself who ensures that her husband never need scramble for any celebrity foil. But Stapleton is out there alone on the record’s best song, and his best song overall. “Either Way” is a monster power ballad, just a plaintive acoustic guitar and his howitzer voice, deployed in the service of the song and not the man for once. This one is designed to bowl you over the first 100 times, and the next several hundred after that. It’s the first country song I’ve heard in 2017 that I’m actively hoping becomes a giant hit. It justifies the Chris Stapleton Mania overkill that preceded it.

Choose your favorite bearded sage, and yeah, choose Stapleton most of the time. But don’t close either guy off entirely, so as not to miss when they overlap into something approaching greatness. The Billboard Country Songs chart still leans decidedly bro-ward in 2017; the names and the faces and very often the tunes themselves are interchangeable, and even the best stuff is bad news for the genre’s old souls. Sam Hunt, the suavely disruptive Drake analog often tapped as country’s future, is so dominant singles-wise these days that some people wonder if he’ll stop bothering with full albums at all. Another blow for grizzled traditionalists like Stapleton and Brown — and another reason to give ’em just a little bit more of your time, and your sympathy.