In May 2015, when Mercury Nashville released Chris Stapleton‘s debut album, Traveller, the record became a favorite of music elites: finally, a Nashville singer with soul and no songs about bikinis and tailgating. That underdog stature ended abruptly in November, when Stapleton, to the astonishment of everyone (especially him), won three Country Music Association (CMA) Awards. He even stole the show, singing two songs with his pal Justin Timberlake. In the aftermath, his album went to No. 1 and received four Grammy nominations, including album of the year, and he played Saturday Night Live. In August, he and Hank Williams Jr. will co-headline a tour of 15,000-seat amphitheaters. Quite a rise for a guy who six months ago was playing for 1,000 people each night.
Stapleton, 37, a burly, bearded son of a Kentucky coal miner, wrote country hits for Kenny Chesney and George Strait but spent most of his time singing either Southern rock (with The Jompson Brothers) or bluegrass (with The SteelDrivers). He cut Traveller with Dave Cobb, who has produced country outliers Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, and a band that includes his wife Morgane, who is also a singer-songwriter. Here’s the inside story on how the death of Stapleton’s father led him to make Traveller, and how it became the surprise hit of 2015.
Brian Wright, senior vp A&R, Universal Music Group Nashville I met Chris 12 or 13 years ago. He had a shaved head and no beard. Chris always told me he didn’t want a record deal — he just wanted to be a songwriter. Every time I asked, he said, “I don’t want a record deal.”
Chris Stapleton, singer-songwriter I played in a rock’n’roll band. I played in a bluegrass band. I had other things I wanted to do, besides country music. And then a switch was flipped. My dad died of complications from type 2 diabetes in October 2013. When a parent dies, it changes you. You view your own mortality. It’s like an “I’m next” kind of thing. Not in a grim way.
Bobby Bones, syndicated radio host I had Chris on my show four or five times before Traveller came out. People said, “You shouldn’t have a no-name on.” We looked at the research on tune-ins and tune-outs, and when Chris played, nobody tuned out.
Wright I was sitting in my office, hearing country song after country song with the same melody and same lyric. Then somebody played me a song Chris was singing on. I called him up and we went to lunch, talked for an hour about our kids. I said, “Chris, come make a country record.” He goes, “I need to talk to Morgane.” I got in my car and drove down West End Avenue back to the office, and Morgane called me and goes, “You son of a bitch. I told him two weeks ago to call you and discuss this.” I said, “Is that a yes?”
Stapleton I loved the sonic quality Dave Cobb got on Sturgill Simpson’s records. I wasn’t sure you could still make records that sound like that, like older records I had in my head. Some people you just can’t work with — personalities rub. I went over to his house to see if we could stand each other.
Dave Cobb, producer We had an instant bond over guitars and cars. Making the record felt like we were playing hooky.
Stapleton We showed up at the crack of noon, ate some lunch, had a cocktail or two and played music whenever the spirit led us.
Cobb You have a bunch of hillbillies in the studio, ordering food and drinking and goofing off. We wouldn’t start recording until 8 or 9 at night. Then we’d goof off again. It seemed way too easy.
Wright Usually in this town, you go into the studio at 10 a.m., you track one or two songs, then you break for lunch, and at 2 p.m., you track another song or two.
Cobb When we recorded “Was It 26,” the band was checking their microphones. We said, “Whoa, that should be on the album.” We ran the song a second time, then ended up using the first take.
Charlie Daniels, country-rock legend who recorded the original version of “Was It 26” Country is going through a phase where it’s more image than music. I’ve been doing this a long time. When the music gets in trouble, it goes back to its roots.
Stapleton Two days in, we had six songs done, start to finish. Made the entire record in a week, then had another week to mix it.
Cobb There are minimal overdubs on the album. When you have a singer like Chris, you don’t have to cover up anything. And Morgane is one of the best singers on the planet.
Wright Chris walked into my office with a bottle of bourbon and a copy of the record. He said, “We mastered this yesterday. I want you to hear it.” I’m not going to lie — I cried. We sat there the whole night, listening to the record and drinking the whole bottle.
Cindy Mabe, president, Universal Music Group Nashville The timeline for promoting the song to radio started as the album came out in May, not in front of its release, which is different than normal. We looked at it as a body of work, not just a single. People in Nashville already respected Chris, and once they heard Traveller, word-of-mouth kick-started the album.
Stapleton We sold 27,000 records the first week. We played David Letterman, Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert.
Morgane Stapleton It was a steady build. And then, November…
Stapleton I didn’t expect to win any CMA Awards. I was just going to have fun and play my songs. We rehearsed with Justin Timberlake for a day or two.
Morgane Stapleton There was some apprehension before we rehearsed with Justin. But after five minutes of rehearsing, that all melted away.
Cobb When Chris won the first award, he choked up a little bit. The second award, for album of the year, I came up with him and I choked up. Then Chris got another award, and he choked up again.
Stapleton Then the album went back into the chart at No. 1. Doesn’t suck!
Morgane Stapleton Justin threw an afterparty. My feet hurt by the end of that night — or the beginning of the morning.
Wright I left straight from the party to the airport and played in a golf tournament at 8 a.m. the next day. It was the longest I’ve ever stayed up and continued to drink. It was worth it.
Stapleton The lesson is, make music that you love. A lot of people get in trouble when they do what they’re told to do because they want to be famous. No one has ever forced me to do anything.
Wright People say the pendulum is swinging back to traditional country music. I don’t buy it. Traveller isn’t a hit because it’s traditional. It’s a hit because Chris is the best singer in Nashville.
Cobb There is no secret to Chris’ success. The secret is talent; the secret is songs.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of Billboard.