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

ABC/Image Group LA
 Chris Stapleton performs at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 should go down as the day when a guy named Chris Stapleton had his name become the No. 1 trending search term on Google. Prior to the CMA Awards, probably not even his most ardent admirers would have placed any substantial bets on him ever being No. 1 on any significant chart outside of country music… if that, even. But for days after the show, he’s continued to have the top-selling album (Traveller) and second-highest song (“Tennessee Whiskey”) on iTunes, prefiguring an almost-sure rise to the top spot on the Billboard albums chart when results are released this week.

Chris Stapleton's 'Traveller' Album Heading for No. 1 on Billboard 200 Chart After CMA Triumph

It turns out he was hiding an ace in that beard, and that ace was buddy Justin Timberlake, whose participation in a riveting duet with Stapleton helped create the kind of instantaneous “star is born” moment the music industry rarely sees anymore. Never mind that Stapleton, 37, has been as well known in Nashville circles for years as he has been obscure outside of the 615 area code. Grizzly-looking or not, he’s this year’s Cinderella story.

Reaction from his peers matched the public fascination. “Every artist in that room knew what Chris Stapleton means to music,” said Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley. “I just feel like he just hasn’t reached critical mass yet He’s always been our little best kept secret, and here’s his chance to reach the masses. It was just electric. I don’t know if it would have been exactly the same without Timberlake, but either way, it would have been just a huge moment for him, and Timberlake just heightened it.”

Admits Robert Deaton, the executive producer of the CMAs, "I don’t think anybody in television or music could have predicted that. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime performance. That he’s a great talent was not new to me. We put him on the show a couple years ago behind Luke Bryan (singing the hit Stapleton co-wrote for Bryan, “Drink a Beer”)."

Was there any conflict over giving the segment eight minutes, not knowing how well it’d come off? "No, they didn’t have to talk me into it. When Justin Timberlake was first brought up, that’s the unique situation. We’re honored to have him on our stage; he’s a Tennessee boy. And this didn’t just happen yesterday. We talked two months ago, before I had built the show. If they had come to me a week prior, then that would have been a problem. But I told [Timberlake] immediately I would block out eight minutes. I didn’t predict it to this degree, but I knew it was going to be a real music moment."

Enjoying a calm-between-storms moment at home with his family, Stapleton got on the phone over the weekend to talk about how the duet came to be, and confess how utterly unprepared he feels for whatever comes next.

So, your phone: officially blown up?

I’ve turned it off a few times, and I’ve definitely turned the ringer off so I wouldn’t have to annoy everyone around me with the iPhone text ding sound. What a good problem to have. I’m still processing it. The next week will be telling, I guess. What it’s gonna mean for us out on the road, and what it’s gonna look like people-wise, I don’t know. I don’t know what it means for me in general. [Laughs] We’re trying to wrap our heads around it a little bit. I think we’re back out on the road Tuesday, so we’re looking forward to a west coast run that, remarkably, immediately sold out during the CMAs.

You could probably safely move your show to a bigger room in L.A. than the El Rey, at this point [Stapleton plays there Nov. 16].

Maybe we could, but there’s a part of me that likes to just stick with the rooms that we have and see what that feels like... This is all new territory for all of us. It’s a different scenario and we’re gonna try to make the most of it obviously, but also try to do smart things and things that make sense artistically.

I remember seeing you get a standing ovation at the Ryman Country Radio Seminar at the beginning of 2013. The other would-be freshman act who achieved that was Kacey Musgraves. But your path has taken longer than hers. You released a single (“What Are You Listening To”) that didn’t do well that same year, and you recorded a whole album that got scrapped before you went back in to make the record that came out this June. With all that said, you seem like the kind of guy who might not get extremely frustrated and angry when things take a while.

Well, people who know me [know] that I don’t get in a rush too much, sometimes to other people’s dismay. [Laughs] I try to look at things -- and I’m not always great at it -- as things happen or don’t happen for reasons, and we’re not always supposed to know what those reasons are. Philosophically, everything’s gonna happen if it’s gonna happen and it’s not if it’s not. It’s always gonna be what it’s gonna be. And if you just let it be that and go with it and walk through the doors that are open, that’s all you can do. Those are the things that you have control over. If I could plan it out on a piece of paper, it couldn’t be better for me right now. We’re certainly far exceeding any expectation that any of us had for what this record could do and what this year would be. We’re all trying to catch our breath, and playing catch-up with “We weren’t ready for this -- what are we gonna do now?”

Can you talk about how the CMAs performance came together, since it was your idea to bring in Justin?

I sent [the album] to him long before it was out. He was one of the first people I sent it to. We’ve known each other for a few years now -- maybe three, I don’t know exactly how long. We met through mutual friends. When his wife was pregnant, we talked about some things about being a dad. We talk about dad stuff and regular life stuff -- and we talk about music a lot, too. And we always check in on each other. Even if we don’t talk for six months or something, we [say] “Hey man, how you doing? All right, you good? Cool.” In all that, we kept threatening to find a reason to do something. And these nominations came up, and I thought maybe we could have a shot at a performance slot, so I called him up and asked if he’d be interested in coming on the show and playing with me. And he was like, “Yeah, man, tell me when and I’ll be there.” so we took that notion to the CMAs, and they were kind enough to make it happen.

Eight minutes is a long slot to give up on an awards show. Did you have to convince them: “Trust us, this will be worth 8 minutes of your time”?

Well, Justin is real good at convincing people what’s needed... [Laughs] …and what would make sense. And for him, what made sense was eight minutes. Obviously I’m not going to complain about that! [Laughs] Yeah, I understand it was an unprecedented amount of time to get on a show. But they really wanted to make it be a moment, and that was the way it got done.

What was going through your mind on stage?

I was having fun. That’s my happy spot. Particularly the fact that we got to combine all my folks with his folks. We had a couple days and nights of rehearsals before we were up there. It’s a bunch of singers and musicians enjoying collaborating and hanging out and getting to do something different from their normal things they would do. It was the opposite of… I don’t get nervous, ever, really. But it was beyond not nervous. I love musicians and singers, that interaction. To get to do it obviously on such a large stage is even better, for me. But I would have been doing that even if I had to buy a plane ticket and fly somewhere just to hang out and get to do it in front of nobody.

So, are you trying to figure out how you can hire a horn section for your tour now?

[He laughs long and hard.] You know, I’ve only gotten to play with a horn section one other time. There’s a band called the Shadow Boxers in town and they were having a funk thing and invited me to come sing a James Brown song, so I hopped up on there with the horn section. I really enjoyed the horn section. I certainly couldn’t afford to carry one, and none of the record has horns on it, so it wouldn’t make sense all the time. But what a treat, for me and all of my guys -- and gals [his wife. Morgane, is in his band] -- to have horns and B3s and that kind of stuff. We love that kind of music and what that brings on a stage. Great musicians are great musicians, whether they’re playing a trombone or an electric guitar or a xylophone.