When Chris Stapleton walked onto the Grand Ole Opry stage on September 24th, 2013, only a handful of audience members recognized his name.
A former member of the SteelDrivers, Stapleton had recently gone solo, signing his own record deal with Mercury Nashville and releasing his first single, “What Are You Listening To,” earlier that summer. On paper, he was already a major-label country artist. The charts told a different story, though, with “What Are You Listening To” disappearing before it could even crack the Top 40. With more than two years to go before his show-stealing, career-making performance with Justin Timberlake at the 2015 CMA Awards, Stapleton — whose closest brush with the mainstream had arrived not through his own performances, but via his work as a songwriter for George Strait and Kenny Chesney — had something to prove.
And the guy delivered. As if to show that his own influences ran deeper than modern-day country, Stapleton closed out his short performance with a stripped-down cover of “Amanda,” the mid-Seventies classic popularized by Don Williams and Waylon Jennings. The arrangement was bare-boned, with Stapleton’s guitar backed only by the steady pluck of J.T. Cure’s bass. The effect, though, was tremendous, thanks to a rafter-reaching voice that rattled its way from the Opry stage to the theater’s cheap seats. Morgane Stapleton got a piece of the action, too, singing harmonies during the chorus. On a radio show filled with big performances from big names, Stapleton proved that a newcomer could still pack the biggest punch by taking country music back to its basics.