One day about 10 years ago, singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton stood in a parking lot outside a Nashville restaurant with label executive Brian Wright. The two longtime friends had just met for lunch after Wright sat through a long morning of meetings where every single song that was pitched to him sounded exactly the same, many extolling the virtues of cold beers and dirt roads.
Wright was ready for his label to sign a singer with a different vision, and he had a suspicion that Stapleton - whose powerful vocals could deliver country, bluegrass, rock, soul or a mix of them all - could be the answer. The only problem that was Stapleton seemed perfectly content to write hits for other artists (Josh Turner’s “Your Man,” Darius Rucker’s “Come Back Song,” Trace Adkins’s “Swing”) and didn’t have much interest in a record deal.
“He didn’t want that life, I don’t believe,” said Wright, executive vice president of A&R for Universal Music Group Nashville. “He didn’t like the spotlight, he liked being behind the scenes.”
Flash forward a decade, and Stapleton, 44, will be in one of the brightest spotlights that exists in the world: Singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl on Sunday. It’s safe to say that standing in the parking lot that day - when Wright offered Stapleton a record deal that he ultimately accepted - neither would have predicted the career trajectory for the mild-mannered Kentucky native.
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When Stapleton (who was unavailable to comment for this story) started making his debut record “Traveller” after he signed to Universal’s Mercury Records in 2013, he was relatively unknown outside of country music, even though he was once part of the Grammy-nominated bluegrass band the SteelDrivers. But in Nashville, he had a reputation as one of those hidden gem musicians. Plus, he and his wife Morgane - a singer-songwriter who sings background vocals for Stapleton and other artists - were a beloved couple around Music City.
“I think everyone knew he was one of the best songwriters in town, and everyone knew he was one of the best singers in town,” said Dave Cobb, the famed producer who has worked with Stapleton on all of his major-label albums.
Cobb recalled recording “Traveller” was just “pure joy,” and they finished the majority of it in about a week. “He was given freedom to do whatever he wanted to do,” Cobb said. “There was no agenda, it was him being completely honest in record-making. He picked the songs he connected to and that he wrote, and he went in there and delivered it with complete purity - he was never angling for a Grammy or CMA, he was just trying to make the best record he could possibly make.”
Incidentally, the Country Music Association Awards in November 2015 changed his life - Stapleton won best new artist and best male vocalist, as well as album of the year for “Traveller.” His sweep stunned and delighted the industry crowd in the room, and then he took the stage with one of his friends, Justin Timberlake. The two had been pals since Timberlake’s wife, Jessica Biel, enlisted Stapleton to fly to the exclusive Yellowstone Club in Montana for an acoustic performance for Timberlake’s birthday, Wright said.
That night, Stapleton and Timberlake performed for an electrifying eight minutes to a medley of “Tennessee Whiskey” (the 1981 classic that Stapleton covered for his album) and Timberlake’s “Drink You Away.” The infectious energy that poured from the stage was a rare and thrilling sight, becoming one of the long-running show’s instant-classic performances. The TV audience was equally riveted, as “Chris Stapleton” - who was this long-bearded guy with the incredible booming voice in the cowboy hat? - immediately shot to the No. 1 search term on Google.
“I was crying,” Wright said, recalling the performance blew him away even though he had seen the show rehearsals. “I think the whole team at the label felt that way, to see him up onstage and for the world to see him sing.”
Cobb, who was onstage playing guitar that night, called it a “mind-bending experience” - he remembers watching the audience’s faces “just full of joy and happiness and support.” It was hard to grasp what had just happened, he said, but everything quickly became real when “Traveller,” which had sold 97,000 copies up to that point, sold 153,000 in the next week. The record eventually racked up 6 million in sales on its way to becoming the highest-selling country album of the 2010s.
“Our hope was to sell 20,000 copies, maybe, and getting to make another record,” Cobb said. When he saw Stapleton and Morgane again about a month after the CMAs, “It didn’t seem real, we were in shock . . . it felt like watching a Hollywood movie or something.”
Since then, Stapleton has released three more albums (two volumes of “From A Room” in 2017, “Starting Over” in 2020), won eight Grammy Awards and had a string of hits on country radio, including “Broken Halos,” “Millionaire” and “You Should Probably Leave.” He’s the go-to country guy to collaborate with other A-list artists, from Ed Sheeran to Adele to the Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson performance at the Grammys last weekend, and now gets tabloid coverage about his life with Morgane and their five kids.
Nashville songwriter Ronnie Bowman has been writing with Stapleton for years; the first song they wrote together was Kenny Chesney’s 2007 hit “Never Wanted Nothing More,” and also collaborated on Stapleton’s “Nobody to Blame,” which won the Academy of Country Music’s song of the year in 2016.
“He hasn’t changed a bit, other than the fact that he’s just a whole lot more busy,” Bowman said. “Chris is very modest and he would never brag on himself, so I don’t mind doing it at all.” He has seen people’s startled reactions to Stapleton’s big voice over the years, one that “has just the right tone” that cuts through. “I think that’s a God-given thing right there. I don’t think you can teach anybody that.”
And now that voice will be on display for tens of millions at the Super Bowl, part of an unexpected journey but not all that surprising to some.
“I always knew if people would just see him sing that it would be over with,” Wright said. “That’s what happened after they saw him on the CMAs, and the rest is history.”