Women in Music 2016

Chris Stapleton Travels to Top of Country Charts Without Strong Support From Radio

ABC/Image Group LA
Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton perform at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.

But programmers are waking up following the singer's CMAs triumph. "Chris' performance undoubtedly moved people who will be calling their radio stations now," says one Nashville label exec.

Unless you have been away for the past week (say, maybe, on Pluto), you now know that Chris Stapleton was the big winner at the 49th annual Country Music Association (CMA) Awards on Nov. 4.

According to Nielsen, 13.6 million viewers watched him win all three categories in which he was nominated and perform a medley with Justin Timberlake. Stapleton won CMA trophies for male vocalist of the year, new artist of the year and album of the year, for Traveller. Stapleton and Timberlake sang Traveller track "Tennessee Whiskey" and Timberlake's "Drink You Away" (from the latter's The 20/20 Experience, 2 of 2).

Chris Stapleton Aiming for Second Week at No. 1 on Billboard 200

After debuting on the Top Country Albums chart dated May 23 at No. 2 with 27,000 sold, according to Nielsen Music, Stapleton's first set remained in the list's top 40 for 25 more weeks. On the Nov. 21 chart, buoyed by his CMAs spotlight, Traveller flies 25-1, up 6,412 percent from 2,000 sold to 153,000 in the week ending Nov. 5. On the Billboard 200, the LP is the first title ever to re-enter at No. 1 (after it originally peaked at No. 14 upon its debut), bounding back with 177,000 equivalent album units.

Similarly, Stapleton scores his first Hot Country Songs No. 1 as "Whiskey" re-enters at the top (also marking the first No. 1 re-entry on the tally). On Country Digital Songs, "Whiskey" returns at No. 1 (after a week at No. 44 in May), up from less than 1,000 downloads sold to 131,000. The Traveller title track also debuts at No. 10 on Country Digital Songs (25,000) and No. 23 on Hot Country Songs.

Despite his best new artist award, Stapleton, 37, has been a Nashville presence for more than 15 years, earning status as a marquee songwriter by penning hits for other artists, such as Luke Bryan's "Drink a Beer," Kenny Chesney's "Never Wanted Nothing More" and Thomas Rhett's "Crash and Burn."

Chris Stapleton Soars to No. 1 on Billboard 200 Albums Chart After CMAs

As for Stapleton as an artist, country radio has been a minimal factor, at least so far. His debut 2013 single, "What Are You Listening To," which was supported by a nationwide radio tour, peaked at No. 46 on Country Airplay. Second radio single "Traveller" has not dented the chart. "Many PDs supported him, but we didn't reach a critical-mass moment on the charts," Mercury Nashville vp promotion Damon Moberly tells Billboard. "He was still very much in that new-artist lane."

Now, with a fresh radio single, Traveller's "Nobody to Blame" -- new at No. 46 on Country Airplay (with 2.2 million in audience) -- will Stapleton's CMA wins translate to significant airplay? "I have no doubt that Chris will be on the radio," says UMG Nashville president Cindy Mabe. "Will it be with this single? That will be determined. But whether it's this one or the next one or the one after, he will be a factor at country radio. Chris' CMA performance undoubtedly moved people who will be calling their radio stations now."

Scott Mahalick, Alpha Broadcasting executive vp programming, believes that Stapleton's CMA wins and performance were game-changing. "He's doing a show in Portland [Ore., home of the chain's KUPL] next weekend. It was selling OK. After the CMAs, it sold out. That's listener behavior; how can you not pay attention to that?"

Chris Stapleton Talks Justin Timberlake Friendship, His Star-is-Born Performance, & What's Next

Mahalick acknowledges that Stapleton's traditional sound is quite different than the bulk of what's currently popular. "He wasn't polished in the Nashville machine. He's different, but that's good. We'll lose our uniqueness if everything sounds the same. Artists like Kacey Musgraves and Stapleton, who aren't part of a formula, can help with balance."

While optimistic about Stapleton’s chances at country radio, Mike Moore, Entercom Communications director of country programming, says it's ultimately up to listeners. "I am curious, so I am interested in the new single. Once we get it on the air, the fans will tell us if it's a hit."

"America found out about Stapleton at the CMAs," iHeartMedia regional senior vp programming and WUSY Chattanooga, Tenn., PD Gator Harrison says. "He's going to get support from a lot of programmers who already believe, and others who woke up Wednesday night."

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.