Recently Justin Timberlake performed at the 2015 Country Music Awards (CMAs) with up-and-coming country musician Chris Stapleton and it was doozy! Methinks that the entire performance caused many o’ EARGASMS. I definitely had one. Did I mention that Americana/Roots Rock GOD John Mellencamp also appeared on the show? YAAAAASSSSSS!!!
In recent years, with the success of the “new country” sound and its crossover appeal onto the Pop Charts, the CMAs, and shows alike, have made a discernible effort to include music entertainers/artists from other genres as part of collaborative performance events. Many of them have been successful, and others not so much.
Last year on the CMAs country super group Little Big Town performed collaboration with Ariana Grande. The foursome began there set with a rousing version of their hit song “Day Drinking” backed by an amazing drum line. At the close of the song things shift gear and Ms. Grande explodes onto the scene and they all perform a great version of her hit song, “Bang Bang” – which she originally recorded with pop stars Jessie J and Nicki Minaj – and it had the entire audience on their feet. With that little performance Little Big Town was telling the world that country music and pop can coexist and even complement each other.
This year’s CMAs also had some great collaboration between Keith Urban and John Mellencamp. The duo performed the Mellencamp classic “Pink Houses” and then Urban moved into his latest hit, a partial homage to the Americana great entitled, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” (written by Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman and John Osborne). This song is a prime example of “new country” and keeps with the kind of sound that we are accustomed to hearing from Mr. Urban. But what it also does is bring in all the influences that have impacted a vast majority of country music fans and makes it relevant to their lives and values. The song highlights John “Cougar” Mellencamp – an Americana/Roots Rock legend; John Deere – the farming icon; and John 3:16 – a biblical verse about God giving the world his only son [Jesus]. That’s country! Check out their performance here.
During this night of music we also saw country newcomer Thomas Rhett, son of country music star Rhett Akins, performed on the CMAs with the rock band Fall Out Boy. They played their songs “Crash and Burn,” and “Uma Thurman,” to create an interesting mix of danceable country and rock. Both Crash and Burn and Uma Thurman have a 1950s surf music swing to them that is undeniable. In Uma you can definitely hear the Dick Dale influence loud and clear.
The performance event of the night was definitely Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton. Who’d a thunk it that JT would do country so well? Anyone who has been paying attention to the incredibly talented man who is Mr. Timberlake. Oh yeah, and JT is from Memphis, Tennessee which a lot of folks have either conveniently forgotten or never knew. On the CMAs you could hear his roots coming out in the performance. And Justin did something that any fan of his music would appreciate; he let his co-performer of the night share the spotlight equally.
Mr. Stapleton made a wonderful call when he asked Justin to perform with him on the awards. Their voices blended together swimmingly, as did the soul and heart that each of these individuals brings to their music. From the heavily blues influenced “Tennessee Whiskey,” we hear Muddy Waters meets Stevie Ray Vaughan. That guttural roar in Stapleton’s voice that gets under your skin and touches your FEELS just the right way. That, uuuummm, scrunch of up your face kinda soul-touch and the knowing that someone else has been in that love-drunk that you may be experiencing – he connects with his audience because he’s no different than them. He TOO has demons that he must slay and love got him through them. “You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey, You’re a sweet as strawberry wine, You’re as warm as a glass of brandy, And I stay stoned on your love all the time.”
When they move into Timberlake’s “Drink You Away,” the audience is further drawn in the “black magic” that they wove so well. JT’s roots really show in this performance. The choice of pairing these two songs in succession worked because they both deal with coping with the effects of love. One speaks of love as a drink-drug-like elixir; the other deals with the aftermath of love and heartbreak by drinking to numb the pain and realizing that this just doesn’t work. “I’ve tried Jack, I’ve tried Jim, I’ve tried all of their friends, But I can’t drink you away.”
The two songs are the antithesis of each other. Tennessee Whiskey is the before – love when it is sweet and your saving grace. That time in your life when you want to be with that special someone all the time. That space where you want to drown in their love. Drink You Away is the aftermath of that love. When things have gone wrong and you’re still in love with someone and you want to forget them. That hell when the good and bad times creep into your thoughts without warning and hurt you all the same. We’ve all been there, and a lot of us have tried to “drink to forget.”
What is most appreciated about Mr. Stapleton is his music/sound and NOT his looks. Chris Stapleton does not look like a lot of these” new country artists” that Nashville seems to want to churn out – not unlike many of the “hair bands during the latter part of the 1980s and early 1990s. He is not polished and coiffed to excess. He is just himself. An old boy from Kentucky who’s making DAMNED good country-blues music and should be appreciated as such. Pay close attention the expression on the faces of audience and their reaction to him.
For true lovers of music, and audiophiles like me, this collaboration was literally, music to my ears. Chris Stapleton has gained a new lifelong fan. Justin Timberlake continues to solidify his place in my music catalogue. It’s good to see that country music is embracing their “cross-over” musicians and fans. If you’re not listening to Stapleton then you should be; and if you don’t think that Timberlake can contribute anything worthwhile to country, or don’t think he has the background for it, you’re not paying attention. One of the biggest country music stars of current times is hails from Australia by way of New Zealand – Keith Urban.
Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake are two artists you should be keeping an eye on in country right now. And let us not fail to mention Mr. Sam Hunt who is also an artist to watch. He was nominated at this year’s awards and should NOT be overlooked.