Chris Stapleton: Country's Breakout Star Talks Big Year, New Music

In the studio to record a song with wife Morgane, singer-songwriter opens up on a wild 2015

Chris Stapleton reflects on his breakout year and the success of his debut album 'Traveller.' Credit: Rob Kim/GettyImages

There's an inscription inside Chris Stapleton's wedding ring that doubles as one of the highlights of his concerts: "You Are My Sunshine." Before he and his wife Morgane said, "I do," the former Ms. Hayes had the title to the oft-covered Jimmie Davis classic secretly engraved in Stapleton's wedding band.

Dave Cobb — the producer behind Stapleton's now gold-certified Traveller and the upcoming compilation Southern Family, on which the Stapletons perform "You Are My Sunshine" — is amazed to hear this. For all the time he and the Kentucky-born singer-songwriter have spent together, both in the studio and on the stage, Cobb never learned this intimate yet important detail.

"Yeah, it's engraved in there," Stapleton says quietly, slipping off his wedding ring. "That's our story."

Cobb is satisfied. "I never saw the inside of your wedding ring," he says.

"'Cause that'd be weird," quips Morgane, the Mama Bear and wise-cracker of the musical family, which sends her husband into one of his huge, room-filling laughs.

Stapleton, Morgane and Cobb are gathered in the lobby of RCA Studio A, where Morgane, with help from Chris, is about to record "You Are My Sunshine" for Cobb's concept album Southern Family. Despite a legacy of Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Elvis Presley all making albums there, the Nashville facility came inches away from the wrecking ball in 2014. Had the studio not been saved at the last minute by a Nashville philanthropist, Stapleton's Traveller, as the Nashville Scene pointed out earlier this month, would have made tragic history as the very last album to be cut in the warm, woody room.

Instead, Traveller went on to achieve a more noble milestone, winning Album of the Year at the November CMA Awards and, thanks to an instantly legendary performance with Justin Timberlake, rocketing to the top of the all-genre Billboard 200, where it stayed for two weeks. Stapleton was now in the public consciousness, the subject of #WhoIsChrisStapleton tweets and a stream of articles and TV appearances. Even TMZ's Harvey Levin was suddenly clued-in to the bearded, decidedly un-TMZ artist, referring to him colloquially on-air as "Stapleton," as if he'd known the name for years.

For Stapleton, Morgane and Cobb all the attention has been a bit bewildering. "It's like getting in a bad car wreck and you don't feel like you're hurt for a while," says Cobb, who was producing a band in Germany when Traveller's surging sales figures came in (176,000 in the week after the CMAs). "I don't think I slept for two days."

The Stapletons, meanwhile, found themselves pondering the weight of it all.

"It's just heavy glass, and it means a shit ton," says Morgane, referring to her husband's trio of CMA trophies, for Album, Male Vocalist and New Artist. "It was a performance and three awards, and life is completely different."

Stapleton admits it's like living in an alternate universe but says the best indicator of how things have changed post-CMAs is the live show. Quickly after his nationally televised coronation, his remaining tour dates sold out, and demand for a recently announced two-night February stand at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium (where he opened for Jason Isbell during his four-night run in October) necessitated a third date.

"We have a few more people showing up, and we haven't really gone into bigger venues yet. We will in January," Stapleton says. "We booked shows in what we thought. . . [was] really stretching out there. And they sold out really quick. But we don't know what the new reality is as far as people coming to shows or being curious enough to buy a ticket. Or scalpers trying to charge people $800 a ticket."

That nuisance especially irks Morgane. "We've never dealt with scalpers. So we get online and try to keep up with fans and look at Facebook, and the fans feel totally exposed and unprotected. There's all kinds of new things to deal with."

On the home front, it's trying to convince one of their two kids that they don't have the digits of Sam Hunt, whom Stapleton bested in the CMA New Artist race. With his string of Number One radio hits, Hunt was the perceived favorite. (He'd go on to win New Artist at the American Music Awards two weeks later.)

"He had every reason to win [the CMA]. My daughter would have voted for him," says Stapleton. "He won the AMA the other night and my daughter was like, 'I'm so happy Sam Hunt won. Daddy, can we text him? Do you have his number?' I said, 'No, honey, I don't have his number.'"

Adds Morgane, "Our kids think we can text anyone."

The truth is there probably aren't a whole lot of artists who wouldn't take a call from Stapleton, big-name entertainers and under-the-radar singer-songwriters alike. Until last month, he identified with the latter.

"I have completely no street cred anymore," he laughs.

In the studio, Stapleton hasn't lost an ounce of credibility. It's there where he is most at ease, moving unencumbered as his band warms up around him. The players are the same group with whom he tours and recorded Traveller: J.T. Cure on bass, Derek Mixon on drums and former Waylon Jennings sideman Robby Turner on pedal steel. Willie Nelson's longtime harmonica ace Mickey Raphael played on Traveller as well, and often sits in with Stapleton on tour. (With Raphael and Turner behind him, it's hard not to imagine the artist, who has a song titled "Outlaw State of Mind," inheriting the Willie and Waylon mantle.)

Dressed in black jeans and a black T — no hat — Stapleton slips on a denim work shirt, a sign that it's time to get down to business. With the band arranged in a semi-circle and Morgane to his left, Stapleton straps on his Fender electric and begins noodling. On a small table to his right, he displays a commemorative RCA belt buckle, a gift from the studio for recording Traveller there. Candles and flowers sit adjacent Morgane's station, and both she and her husband stand on the same small Navajo rug.

The session is just a few days before Stapleton will fly to New York City to perform at a tribute concert for John Lennon and he's still figuring out what to play. Cobb suggests "Don't Let Me Down," but Stapleton is hesitant. "Sing it like the Allmans' 'Sweet Melissa,'" Cobb says, and he follows his producer's lead, slowing the tempo and adding a bluesy undercurrent. Listening to Stapleton's voice fill the studio on the chorus, Cobb beams. Earlier, he and Stapleton remarked that that is exactly how they approached Traveller: with an open mind and with no agenda.

"It's not pressure," he says of following up Traveller, "but I feel a responsibility to try to maintain the way we did it."

"I think the real win for us is we made a record for no other reason than to make a great record. No plotting of 'What is going to be the first single?' or 'We have to have tempo [songs]' or 'We have to have a ballad,'" Cobb says.

"We thought about none of that," Stapleton agrees.

"If anything, it was, 'What are we going to order for dinner?'" says Cobb.

After warming up with the Beatles, the group, with Cobb on acoustic guitar, takes a run through "You Are My Sunshine." The producer is thrilled and sets up an extra set of headphones so that everyone can hear Morgane's pristine vocal. She feels Stapleton is too in his head, however, moving too fast, and encourages him to have a drink to loosen up. His favorite is Colonel Taylor whiskey, distilled, naturally, in bourbon-rich Kentucky. Cobb jokes that the CMA king, and as of December 7th, multiple Grammy nominee, is on his high horse, too good now to drink in the studio with the peasants. Again, another huge Stapleton laugh.

"You're rushing," Morgane tells him, tacking on a warning. "I'm going to kick you in the nuts."

At this, Stapleton accepts the glass. Another take on "Sunshine" follows, hearkening back to the way the couple first sang it, nearly 10 years ago.

"We had just bought our first house. We weren't married yet," recalls Stapleton.

"We had put down a slate floor, and it was empty. We didn't have furniture, but for whatever reason you had a guitar and started playing something," Morgane says, looking into her husband's eyes as intently as she does onstage.

"I just wanted to sit in an empty room and play guitar, so it worked out for both of us," he says.

"Chris is a master, and I say this with all due respect, at messing things up," she continues, calling attention to the swampy feel of their "You Are My Sunshine." "He can take something so recognizable and turn it into something totally different where it's almost unrecognizable, in the best way possible."

"I always feel that if you're going to cover a song, you should make it your own and flip it on its head. Musically, let's get out there a little bit," Stapleton says, "and sometimes you have to find your way back."

Stapleton doesn't think that'll be a problem when it comes time to record the follow-up to Traveller. Not that he and Cobb are even thinking that far out yet — this late November day marks the first time they've seen each other since the CMAs.

Still, Stapleton does turn contemplative when talk of a new album comes up.

"It's not pressure," he says, "but I feel a responsibility to try to maintain the way we did it."

"You don't need to try. It's who you are," Cobb interjects. "You making another record waking up and singing songs that you wrote is going to be great."

Stapleton offers a slight shrug, and the conversation turns back to Morgane's star turn on "You Are My Sunshine." He points out the lyric is actually darker than its chorus would suggest. Morgane laughs and shares an anecdote about how the song has a forgotten lyric about "peeping through the bars."

"Like a prison song. . .which is why she engraved it on my ring," Stapleton says, letting go another laugh that is as big as his voice. "It seems sweet at first, but it's really a threat."