Saturday , September 24 2022

Music, Magic, and Goosebumps at the CMA’s with Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton


Column: Sound Matters by Steven Halpern

Something truly amazing, awesome, and uplifting occurred during the CMA (Country Music Awards) on November 4th. If you watched the broadcast, you know what I’m talking about.

If you didn’t, you’ll want to check out the video on YouTube. Even if you saw it that night, after reading some of my comments, you’ll want to check it out again.

A New Age Musician Watching the CMA’s?
Why would a New Age musician watch the Country Music Awards? First and foremost, I’m a musician. Past shows have usually included some great performances (I know I’ll have to put up with a number of performances I’d rather not sit through), and I love watching great musicians stretching out, really playing, not just duplicating what is on the recording of their hit song.

From the brain science I’ve studied, I also know that even one truly enjoyable performance will allow my brain to flood my body with endorphins, the neuro-hormones of bliss and well-being. From my teachers, I’ve learned to accept a serendipitous, spontaneous healing whenever I can, without limiting the source.

Have you ever had a peak experience watching a musical performance on TV, where you shift into an altered state of consciousness without any additional stimulants or herbal supplements? I know I have. Fantasia’s finale on American Idol provided one of those moments, which I immediately featured in my next column. Whitney Houston’s high falsetto note at the end of her electrifying “Star Spangled Banner” provided another.

From my study of Ethno-Musicology (thank you Marcus Gordon), and comparative mythology (thank you Jack Clarke, Joseph Campbell, and Jean Houston), I know there is a cultural context for the ceremonial and spiritual uses of music, going back to the Rites of Eleusis in ancient Greece.

Ads for the broadcast promoted several “one-time only” collaborations. One of these featured Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton, an artist I had never heard of, and neither had most of America. That was about to change, Chris had just won “Best New Artist.” Now I knew why. 

Witnessing Musicians Totally in the Moment
Co-host Brad Paisley introduced them as “the Nashville sound meets Memphis soul.”

From their first notes, I knew this was a profound sound experience. Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton got down on a steamy medley of Chris’s “Tennessee Whiskey,” and Justin’s “Drink You Away,” neither of which I was familiar with.

The performance was one for the ages. The singers were totally in sync with each other (pun intended), and with the audience. The music was bluesier than I would have expected.

Words barely suffice. No matter how you describe it: “Awesome!” “It brought the house down.”

First Chris, then Justin demonstrated levels of vocal virtuosity that was simply breathtaking. Together with the incredible band, they tore the roof off.

When the two singers traded phrases, that level of connection and non-verbal communication took the music even higher. You could see the joy and amazement on their faces, too. It was clear to me that this was truly ‘in the moment’, unscripted, more than any prior recorded version.

At one point, you can hear the organ player echoing Justin’s incredible falsetto, using the classic gospel organ tone settings.

The cutaways to various audience members made it clear they were totally enthralled as well.  

Watch the eye contact between Justin and Chris; between the bass player and Justin; and the horn section with everyone. (As a former trumpet player, they were a joy to watch, too.)

All in all, this electrifying performance orchestrated a magic moment for (I’d like to say, or hope) all of us who watched it happen live, and through the magic of YouTube, we can experience it again and again.


Here are the best video links I found:, and

Thank you to Justin, Chris, their band, and the entire team that produced the event. The sound quality that I heard as I listened at home was superb, among the best ever, such as at the Grammys and the Oscars.

I wondered if Justin and Chris knew some of what I reference in the next section. As if on cue from the universe, as I was finishing this column, I knocked over a file folder of “interviews and music articles to read when I have time,” which I had never had time to read.

Out pops an interview with Justin from a four-year-old Playboy magazine that answered part of my question. He was raised as a Baptist, where singing like this is central to Sunday morning services (though with quite different lyrics). He also says: “As a musician, I’ve worked my ass off. The toughest thing a performer can do is to make it look as if it comes easy.”


The Ethno-Musicology Perspective
There was much more going on, however, than meets the untrained eye, or ear. 

To begin with, Justin’s song featured the sensual rhythm of a slow 6/8 beat that had the audience rocking and swaying in rhythm. The effect of this rhythm is quite different than the standard 4/4 rhythms. According to leading researchers like Morton Marks and Claude Levi-Strauss, whose books reside mostly in academic circles, performances like these contain another level of signifiers.

For instance, the use of falsetto in this context is more than just a vocal technique for reaching high notes. It conveys a secret code and signal for those who know the language, and cues to understand that the energy level had just undergone a significant shift into a higher octave.

Times like these remind me of what Carlos Castaneda was told by his teacher, Yaqui man of knowledge Don Juan Matus: “When the Absolute is present, it’s there for everyone.”

Don Juan, of course, was talking about Mescalito, who would appear in sacred peyote ceremonies, showing the same form to all in attendance. Everyone shared the same vision. A big difference: Alcohol was the drug of choice for Justin and Chris.

The same phenomenon of collective consciousness is reported to have occurred yearly at the Rites of Eleusis in ancient Greece, catalyzed by a psychoactive fungus that grew on rye.  (We do not have details, since attendees would be killed if they shared what transpired.)

I believe something on that order took place on the CMA stage: Contemporary musician/priests taking us higher, into closer connection with the divine. If you know the true history of music, in ancient Egypt, Greece, and China, musicians were priests, and priests were musicians.


Flashback: November 1969
I also flashed back on my own journey through music and spirituality. In November of 1969, I was preparing to enter a graduate program focusing on “The Cross-Cultural and Transformative Powers of Music.” I was planning a field trip to Morocco after interviewing William S. Burroughs, who told me I needed to visit the Master Musicians of Jajouka.

That was my plan, until a half-fare ticket landed in my lap on the night of November 10. I was on the 8 AM flight to San Francisco the next morning, 11/11/69. The return flight was scheduled to get me home to play a Thanksgiving gig with my 8-piece jazz-rock band.

All that changed in an instant 10 days later, during an unexpected meditation in a sacred redwood grove outside of Santa Cruz, California. That was when I first really “heard” the celestial sound of the new music I’ve devoted my life to. I recognized my true calling, as I was initiated into what I understood as a ministry of sound healing and healing music.

A final note: I’ve watched the performance on several different platforms. I can tell you that you’ll be missing a lot of aural pleasure and endorphin rush if your speakers are not very good. This might be an excellent rationale or inducement to treat yourself to external speakers (like the new one-piece soundbars) for your TV, or better speakers or headphones for your computer or player.

It doesn’t need to be loud, but if your sound system can’t deliver the full spectrum of frequencies, especially the low and high octaves, you’ll be missing out. Be good to yourself. I’ll admit: during my low-budget college years, I had such a crappy little stereo that I didn’t even realize how much I was missing. That was also why I was known to have chosen a roommate or two based on the quality of his stereo.

Honor your Self with good sound this next year, but why wait? Start now.

Yours for mindfulness throughout the holidays, 
Steven Halpern

Steven Halpern is a Grammy® Award-nominated recording artist celebrating his 40th anniversary as “the most trusted name in sound healing.”
His latest releases are Mindful Piano, and Among Friends: 1975-2015 (A 40-Year Retrospective.) 
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