After moving to Nashville in 2001, Chris Stapleton kicked off his career as a songwriter for other singers, spending his days whipping up hits for Kenny Chesney, Josh Turner, and Darius Rucker. His own bands came and went along the way, including a run with left-of-center bluegrass group the SteelDrivers and one album with half-serious Southern-rockers the Jompson Brothers. By the time his duet with Justin Timberlake at the 2015 CMA Awards catapulted his solo career to the top of the mainstream, Stapleton had become one of the industry’s best-kept secrets: a songwriter, guitarist, and knockout singer whose pen was just as mighty as his voice. Here, we take a look at some of the songs that helped get him there: 10 tracks that Stapleton wrote for others.
Two weeks before Adele launched her career with 2008's 19, the SteelDrivers released their own debut, filtering the texture and twang of bluegrass music through the roar of frontman Chris Stapleton's pipes. It was Adele's voice that brought the most attention to "If It Hadn't Been for Love," though, with the "Rolling in the Deep" singer releasing her own version of this murky murder ballad as a bonus track on 2011's 21.
It took two months for "Never Wanted Nothing More" to scale the country charts, giving Kenny Chesney the quickest-climbing Number One hit of his career. The song's storyline moves at a speedy pace, too, with the narrator buying his first car, losing his virginity and getting married within the first two verses.
With its rapid-fire vocal delivery and Erykah Badu-worthy drum track, "Don't Start Lying to Me Now" is more influenced by R&B than country. Joss Stone's rasp helps seal the deal, pushing Stapleton's song far away from his rootsy comfort zone. Recorded in Nashville with producer Dave Stewart, the song is one of the darkest horses in Stapleton's catalog, proof that even country boys know their way around a big-city beat.
"Winning Streak" is a neo-traditional firecracker, driven forward at a breakneck pace by barroom piano, roadhouse guitar licks and saloon-worthy swing. Monroe, Stapleton and Jessi Alexander wrote the song together, adding pep and punch to an album that often reserves its most beautiful moments for the slower numbers.
Stuck halfway between the worlds of Motown and modern-day pop, "Crash and Burn" could, at first listen, be mistaken for a Bruno Mars song. Once the track's brawny, big-hearted hook barrels its way into the mix, however, it's pure Stapleton. "Crash and Burn" topped the country charts in September 2015, just a handful of weeks before Stapleton's career-changing performance at the CMA Awards.
Sheryl Crow duets with Zac Brown on this mid-tempo ballad, but she teamed up with Stapleton for the song's creation. Released on her debut country album, Feels Like Home, the song feels like a thesis for the entire record, with Crow delivering the punchline — "I get homesick for anywhere but home" — with equal parts nostalgia and heartbreak.
Stapleton was playing country-fried cock-rock with the Jompson Brothers when George Strait released this song in late 2011. A sweet, straightforward song about leaning on your loved one’s support, “Love’s Gonna Make It Alright” was proof that Stapleton couldn’t leave country music behind, even while his own band churned out hoot-worthy, horn-dog tunes like “Ride My Rocket.” Strait’s take on “Love” became a Top Three hit.
Josh Turner's deep baritone may have given "Your Man" its signature rumble, but Stapleton gave it life, dreaming up the tune — his first chart-topper — with Chris DuBois and Jace Everett. It was Turner's first Number One, too, paving the way for a career that has since taken him up the charts four more times. Meanwhile, videos of Stapleton performing "Your Man" can be viewed on YouTube, with the songwriter replacing Turner's butter-smooth delivery with grit and dirty soul.
Alison Krauss’ recording of “Miles to Go” owes a debt not only to Stapleton, who co-wrote the song with Union Station bassist Barry Bales, but to the rest of the SteelDrivers too, thanks to an arrangement that mirrors the rootsy stomp of Stapleton’s former band. Lush and lovely, the song is one of the highlights of Paper Airplane, Krauss’ most recent album with Union Station.
Released more than a decade before Chris Stapleton's career-breaking performance at the 2015 CMA Awards, this kickoff track to Lee Ann Womack's 2005 album is country music at its most straightforward. Fiddle, baritone guitar and pedal steel lay the bedrock for Womack's voice, which howls a tale of cheating hearts and cheap motel rooms with equal parts pain and passion.