There have long been two kinds of country singers—those who combed the catalogs of Nashville songsmiths in search of tunes and those who have penned at least part of their repertoire. There's nothing necessarily inferior about either class; the former group stretches from Patsy Cline to George Strait. But the country singer-songwriter tradition runs from the days of A.P. Carter through honky-tonk heroes like Hank Sr. and Don Gibson and to the countercultural country mavericks of the late sixties and beyond. This week, you can see three very different variations on that continuum, in reverse chronological order.
At eighty-three, Willie Nelson arrives in Cary with old compadre Kris Kristofferson, about a month shy of octogenarian status himself, in tow. Long before they merged in the eighties supergroup The Highwaymen, Willie and Kris helped build the framework for the outlaw country revolution. In the sixties and seventies, they were the iconoclastic avatars of the collision of hippie culture and country music. The songs they wrote reflected that duality.
A younger generation gets its moment the night before when Kenny Chesney, now forty-eight, plays Walnut Creek. Chesney first gained fame in the nineties, and he's since settled into icon status in the twenty-first century. While he's more closely associated with the arena-ready pop-country scene that built his fame, he has become a Gen X version of Jimmy Buffett and an increasingly introspective balladeer.
Chris Stapleton, who comes to Cary a day earlier, is ten years Chesney's junior. He's now at the fore of a wave of artists keeping contemporary country honest. Even with his golden, soulful voice and eclectic songwriting skills, Stapleton, the former singer of neo-bluegrass band the Steeldrivers, avoided stardom for a while. When he finally released his solo debut last year, he emerged as something like the Southern Van Morrison, incorporating soul, country, and rock influences into a very personal, very celebrated style.