When Chris Stapleton performed “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Drink You Away” with Justin Timberlake at the 2015 CMA Awards, he became an instant star – practically overnight, sales of his Traveller LP skyrocketed and his live show was suddenly one of country’s hottest tickets. However, Stapleton’s fortunes with radio have been delayed until this week, when his single “Broken Halos” earned the performer his first Number One as an artist on Billboard‘s Country Airplay Chart. (He’s had multiple Number Ones as a songwriter.)
Released as the second single from Stapleton’s From A Room: Volume 1 – the first of two LPs he put out in 2017 – “Broken Halos” was penned by Stapleton with Mike Henderson, with whom he’d performed years earlier as a member of soul-bluegrass outfit the Steeldrivers. “He’s one of the greatest songwriters that I’ve ever met or written songs with and he is an unknown treasure in some circles,” Stapleton told Rolling Stone Country about his experiences writing with Henderson. “I wanted to cut some songs from some of the guys who helped me learn how to write songs and get better at writing songs, and Mike is one of those guys.”
“Broken Halos” was initially released to radio on July 17th, 2017, after Volume 1‘s lead single “Either Way” peaked at Number 26 on the Country Airplay chart (it fared slightly better on the multi-metric Hot Country Songs, reaching Number 17). This has been a recurring theme since Stapleton’s 2015 breakthrough – the Traveller single “Nobody to Blame” reached Number 10 on Country Airplay, while its follow-up “Parachute” stalled at Number 17. “Tennessee Whiskey,” the Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove tune he sang with Timberlake on the CMA Awards, briefly reached Number One on the Hot Country Songs chart the week after the awards as viewers raced to download the track, but it only scraped the very bottom of the Country Airplay chart.
What’s different about “Broken Halos” then? It’s actually a more stripped-down production than most of the songs on Traveller, needing little more than acoustic guitar, drums, bass and the power of Stapleton and wife Morgane’s voices intertwining to get its point across. It’s also not the skeletal, anguished vocal showcase that “Either Way” was, with a characteristically soulful melody that sounds just familiar enough to feel like it’s always been around. But more than that, timing helps: with its lyrics pondering angels and the afterlife, “Broken Halos” is the latest in a string of more serious, thoughtful songs to lead the Country Airplay chart, following Scotty McCreery’s “Five More Minutes” and Thomas Rhett’s “Marry Me” in March alone. Going back a few months, there’s been a general trend toward this direction, with Maren Morris’ “I Could Use a Love Song,” Garth Brooks’ “Ask Me How I Know,” Lanco’s “Greatest Love Story” and Carly Pearce’s “Every Little Thing” all bringing some lyrical heft to the chart’s top position.
Stapleton’s viral appearance with Timberlake introduced the world to a monster talent long appreciated by Nashville insiders, bringing over fans from the rock and pop worlds along with traditional-leaning country fans who didn’t feel represented by radio. Since that moment, he’s collected numerous honors and ascended to an arena-level touring phenomenon. With “Broken Halos,” he’s crossed off one of the few unfinished items in an already remarkable career.