Chris Stapleton had three big wins at Wednesday night’s CMA Awards, taking home the trophies for album of the year, male vocalist of the year, and new artist of the year. The most impressive of these victories was actually in the new artist category, where he beat out several young stars who will help shape country’s future: Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini and Maddie & Tae.
Here are 10 things to know about the 37-year-old singer/songwriter.
He’s from Kentucky.
During his male vocalist of the year speech, Stapleton shouted out his home state, which has a long, rich history of producing country talent: see Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, Billy Ray Cyrus, Sturgill Simpson and Angaleena Presley. Kentucky has also produced several impressive Nashville songwriters in addition to Stapleton, including Lee Thomas Miller — who helped Stapleton write the devastating “Whiskey snd You” — and Ashley Gorley.
He’s a prolific writer.
Stapleton was the thread connecting most of the artists at the CMAs: As a songwriter in Nashville for more than a decade, his tracks have been cut by nearly every singer in Nashville. Three of Stapleton’s four competitors in the male vocalist category — Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley — have recorded Stapleton tunes. So have other winners (Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town) and performers (Jason Aldean, Brad Paisley and Brooks & Dunn).
Several of those songs have hit No. 1 on the country charts.
Stapleton does not exist on the margins of country music: Bryan’s “Drink a Beer,” Darius Rucker’s “Come Back Song,” Kenny Chesney’s “Never Wanted Nothing More” and Josh Turner’s “Your Man” all went to No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts. Stapleton’s most recent No. 1 composition is Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn,” which reached the top spot on Country Airplay at the end of September.
Traveller is Stapleton’s solo debut.
Stapleton isn’t a new artist by any means: He’s closer to 40 than 30, and he’s earned a huge number of song placements in his career. But he was nominated in the category because Traveller is the first project credited to him alone.
However, Traveller is not Stapleton’s first work as a frontman.
Stapleton put out several albums as a member of the SteelDrivers and sang gleeful lead on a number of the group’s tracks. These records provide the template for Traveller, rifling through classic American song forms — country, folk, bluegrass, soul, blues — with raspy ease and liquor-fueled enthusiasm. The SteelDrivers continued without him, releasing The Muscle Shoals Recordings this year; track it down.
Whiskey is one of his favorite subjects.
Every songwriter returns to some key images for inspiration; for Stapleton, whiskey is a central motif. A sampling of titles includes “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey,” “Whiskey and You,” “Guitars, Whiskey, Guns and Knives,” “Good Corn Liquor,” “Drinkin’ Alone” and “Hangover Tonight.” For Luke Bryan, he tried another kind of booze and wrote “Drink a Beer.”
He can write about trucks too.
Some listeners like to make fun of country’s love affair with motor vehicles, which is foolish. There’s plenty of great truck songs, and Stapleton happened to write one: Along with Vince Gill and Al Anderson, he composed “All-Nighter Comin’” for The All-Nighter With Marcia Campbell. The program airs at midnight CT on weekdays and aims to “keep you truckin’.”
He’s a vocal defender of country music.
Stapleton clearly doesn’t like making speeches — his onstage moments were full of genuine surprise, which is rare at awards shows. But he is an active supporter of his genre, and he refuses to condescend to country’s mainstream. In an interview with FADER, the singer declared, “As long as people want to buy [country] music and go see live shows, as long as they’re doing that for somebody, it’s good for everybody.”
He has a gentle beef with Tom Petty.
When Tom Petty criticized mainstream country in 2013, Stapleton wrote him an open letter: “I, for one, would like to see you put your money where your mouth is in a tangible way… I’m extending an open invitation to you to write songs with me, produce recordings on or with me, or otherwise participate in whatever way you see fit in my little corner of music.” Maybe Petty will take him up on the offer now that Stapleton has three CMA trophies.
He’s a country singer who pop stars are comfortable with.
Before they took the stage together at last night’s CMA Awards, Justin Timberlake tweeted his appreciation for the singer. “REAL music fans already know,” he wrote in December 2014. “So, mainstream: @ChrisStapleton. Remember that name…” But Timberlake was late to the party: Adele has been a fan since recording the SteelDrivers’ “If It Hadn’t Been for Love” as a bonus track for 21. Joss Stone also worked with Stapleton on her 2011 album, LP1.