Hey, Where Did Chris Stapleton Go?

I’m not ready to write a deep dive on where Chris Stapleton’s career went wrong, but I’m about ready to call out a search party for the man.

As 2019 arrived, Chris Stapleton appeared to be on the verge of a major breakthrough in country music. The previous year, he’d cleaned up on the awards circuit (scoring several major CMA, ACM, and even Grammy awards), he had finally broken through the radio blockade with “Broken Halos” (#1) and “Millionare” (#2), and he’d even rode a collaboration with Justin Timberlake (“Say Something”) into the Top 10 of the Hot 100. With a wave of traditional fever sweeping the genre, Stapleton seemed to be perfectly positioned to ride it to superstardom.

Fast forward to 2020, and you might as well put Stapleton’s face on the side of a milk carton. Outside of a now-five-year-old track that just won’t die, he was completely absent from country radio, and whatever buzz he had generated up to this point was lost. What happened? Where had Chris Stapleton gone?

So I put on my headlamp, fired up my search engine, and went scurrying across the web to see what had happened. What I found was that Stapleton hadn’t disappeared as much as he had diversified:

  • He’d been part of a few notable collaborations, working with Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars on “Blow” and with P!nk on “Love Me Anyway.”
  • He’d contributed a song “The Ballad Of The Lonesome Cowboy” to the Toy Story 4 soundtrack.
  • He’d spent much of the summer and fall on tour, and is gearing up to do the same in 2020.
  • Heck, he collaborated with LEGO to make the video headlining this post!

Stapleton may not have been active on the radio, but he was active in nearly every other facet of the business, and managed to work in a few side projects as well. This begs the next question: Why? He was in line to dominate the genre the way Thanos is doing now, so why pass on the opportunity?

While I don’t have a definitive answer on this, there are three factors we should consider:

  • Country radio, as large as it may loom in Nashville, really wasn’t that important to Stapleton’s rise to fame. His radio singles languished in the mid teens for much of 2016 and 2017, yet Traveller sold four million copies and his CMA performance with Timberlake went viral anyway. Stapleton is pretty much the one guy who can walk away from the radio and not walk away from mainstream success. So what if his material wasn’t on the airwaves? They weren’t playing him that much anyway.
  • The radio climate changed dramatically over the course of 2019: The traditional mini-boom weakened and gave way to Boyfriend country, bringing many of the same people who profited during the Metro-Bro era back to the forefront. Stapleton’s never been known as a staunch traditionalist (this is a guy who co-wrote Thomas Rhett’s “South Side,” after all), so if folks like Jon Pardi were fighting like heck to get radio traction, Stapleton wasn’t going to get the benefit of the doubt either. If the genre was actively turning away from you, why fight an uphill battle when you don’t have to?
  • Even if Stapleton had planned on rejoining the radio circus, he didn’t really have much to do it with. Both From A Room volumes were released in 2017, and albums generally only have a two-year span at most, so any single release would likely have to have been freshly recorded for the occasion. (Yes, “Tennessee Whiskey” breaks all of these rules, but given that it’s still languishing at the bottom of the charts, don’t expect it to be a trendsetter going forward.) With Stapleton’s busy schedule in 2019, he likely didn’t have a lot of studio time to dedicate to his own project.

This brings us to our final question: Will we see Chris Stapleton make a triumphant return to the radio in 2020? The signs seem promising: The summer and fall are already spoken for, but he’s reportedly been playing new stuff on the road, and the Boyfriend trend hasn’t looked terribly strong lately. If he’s going to reboot his mainstream career, 2020 would be the year to do it (especially since recent developments in the world make me wonder if we’ll ever make it to 2021…). Regardless of what you think of his musical contribution up to this point (personally I think his singles have been mostly mediocre), he remains one of the strongest vocalists in the genre, and country music is better off with him than without him.