If you asked me bluntly what has been the most important moment in country music in the last ten years, without any hesitation, I would answer conclusively that it was Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake performing “Tennessee Whiskey” at the CMAs Awards in November. of 2015. Hands down.
So many different threads and stories can be drawn from that specific moment, and the reverberations were so overwhelming that they can still be felt today. Appreciate the moment happened seven years ago in November, and again, just this week, “Tennessee Whiskey” was the 5th most-streamed song in all of country music, and its parent album. Traveler also remains one of the most popular titles nationwide, thanks in part to the strength of “Tennessee Whiskey.”
Yes, Chris Stapleton’s version brings a distinctly classic R&B/soul flavor to the classic country track, but appreciate that it’s a song that was written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove in the early 80s, a was recorded by David Allan Coe in 1981, and was re-recorded and became a hit for George Jones in 1983. It’s a classic 40-year-old American country song that’s still as relevant today as it was under the Reagan administration, if not more.
Also remember that the approach of the song can also be linked to the insurrection of modern country music. It was Chris Stapleton listening to Sturgill Simpson’s magum opus Metamodern Sounds in Country Music it motivated him to put aside all the other stuff he had recorded, seek out producer Dave Cobb and record Traveler and “Tennessee Whiskey” live in the studio. In fact, it was Dave Cobb who suggested Stapleton cut the song.
When Chris Stapleton took the stage at the CMA Awards on Nov. 4, 2015, he was by no means a household name. Few mainstream country listeners even knew who he was. Traveler barely raised a blip on the charts, and “Tennessee Whiskey” was an afterthought. But piggy recoiling from Justin Timberlake’s star power, this performance was like a dagger through the heart of the Bro-Country era, which reigned supreme at the time. Bro-Country wouldn’t die there, but he’s been bleeding slowly ever since.
Friday night, June 10, Chris Stapleton was in Los Angeles, performing at the legendary Forum in Inglewood when Justin Timberlake took the stage with him to recreate the moment, spinning in an epic 12-minute version of the song to close the show. . It knocked the house down and reminded many of that moment in 2015.
With everything going on in the world, including country music, it’s easy to forget how important this moment was. Purists and Americana will dismiss it as superfluous. But even here, seven years later, it’s hard not to assess that what we saw that night was magical, and something that helped reshape the direction of country music more than any other time we have lived in recent memory, and that we could ever live.
Chris Stapleton, Justin Timberlake and their particular version of “Tennessee Whiskey” may not be for everyone in country music. But it’s something that most certainly affected all of the rest of country music, and in a way that still resonates, and may not be stopping anytime soon. In that time, these two men helped save country music, even if it took a bit of R&B flavor to do so.