Chris Stapleton swept the CMA Awards last night, winning more trophies than any other act while stealing the show with a pair of country-soul duets alongside Justin Timberlake. Already a household name in Nashville’s songwriting community, where he’s been penning tunes for A-listers like George Strait, Luke Bryan and Adele since 2001, the newly-turned solo artist is still something of a mystery to the general public, leading to plenty of “Who is Chris Stapleton?” queries on social media today. The answer is long, but goes something like this: Stapleton is a 37-year-old Kentucky native who’s written a string of Number One hits for other artists, was once in the popular bluegrass group the SteelDrivers, is married to fellow country singer (and chart-topping songwriter) Morgane Hayes, briefly toured the Bible Belt as frontman of southern cock-rock group the Jompson Brothers, landed a well-deserved record contract as a solo artist, recorded Traveller with producer Dave Cobb and, in the half-year since the album’s release, has been making a rapid (and well-deserved) transition from under-the-radar musician to CMA-winning headliner. Below, we break down Chris Stapleton’s history in more detail.
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1. He’s been to band camp. From 2008 to 2010, Stapleton was the lead singer of the SteelDrivers, a blistering gut-bucket-bluegrass quintet founded by some of Nashville’s most gifted behind-the-scenes players. Stapleton’s supernova voice and timeless lyrics helped make the band a favorite of traditionalists and critics alike, not to mention any fan who stumbled across them. Two albums were released (a self-titled debut and its follow-up, Reckless) and the band earned three Grammy nominations. Stapleton left the band in 2010 to focus on family and songwriting, and was replaced by another outstanding singer, Gary Nichols, but was soon coaxed back into the spotlight. In 2010 he founded the Jompson Brothers, a Southern-rock outfit built on barely-veiled sex and drugs references like “Ride My Rocket” and “Secret Weapon.” The group released one album and toured briefly as an opening act for Zac Brown Band.
2. He should’ve been nominated for CMA Duo of the Year, too. During his first week as a Nashville resident, Stapleton signed a publishing deal with Sea Gayle Music. It was in the Sea Gayle office that he first bumped into Morgane Hayes, a fellow singer and top-shelf songwriter who scored a big hit with Carrie Underwood’s “Don’t Forget to Remember Me.” Married since 2007, the two have become perhaps the greatest unsung duo in modern country, with Morgane serving as Stapleton’s harmony partner, onstage foil, touring mate and all-around muse. He’s a humble guy during his live performances, rarely making a big show of his own ability to skyrocket a melody into the stratosphere. It’s Morgane’s physical reactions — her poise during the ballads and wide-eyed, full-bodied applause whenever her husband hits a high note — that remind you just how amazing Stapleton really is. And he’s better with her.
3. His debut solo album was an instant classic. Stapleton’s Album of the Year-winning Traveller is also his debut as a solo artist, and it encapsulates everything that makes him one of the most powerful and unique voices in country music today: gravelly, soulful and full of songs that ring like instant classics without ever resting too deeply in the past. With a voice like his, that can hit steeple-high notes in one breath and rumble like a twangy Ray Charles the next, he is capable of making most anything sound good – but paired with his stellar songwriting and ingenious knack for bending modern melody around Nashville tradition, Traveller is the complete package. And, thanks to smart production from Dave Cobb, it never sounds too perfect, either. Just listen to “Sometimes I Cry,” the last track of the LP that was recorded in one take in front of a live audience at RCA Studio A: It rips your heart apart while simultaneously mending it, Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” dipped in Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” And the change is Traveller.
4. He and Justin Timberlake are musical (and parental) kindred spirits. “We talk on occasion — ‘Hey man, how’s your kid?’ and all that stuff,” Stapleton, a father of two, tells Rolling Stone Country of his friendship with new dad Timberlake. On one of those phone calls, the country crooner brought up the idea of singing together on the CMA Awards. . . that is, if he was offered a performance slot. It was an easy yes, as he and Timberlake had been speaking of collaborating for a while. So the two had Wednesday night’s CMA plan in place before the nominations even rolled in. “He’s one of the greatest musical talents in this world,” Stapleton says of Timberlake. The feeling is mutual: “REAL music fans already know. So mainstream: @ChrisStapleton Remember that name,” the pop star tweeted last year.
5. Songwriting has more than kept the lights on. After scoring 50 album cuts, Stapleton got his first single – and first Number One – with Josh Turner’s “Your Man.” Other chart-topping hits include “Never Wanted Nothing More,” for Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker’s “Come Back Song,” “Drink a Beer,” by Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn.” Tim McGraw, George Strait, Lee Ann Womack and Alan Jackson have also cut his songs. “If It Hadn’t Been for Love,” which Stapleton wrote for his former band, the SteelDrivers, was also recorded by global superstar Adele for a deluxe edition of her 21 LP.