The Breakout Voice: Chris Stapleton

Chris Stapleton has become country music’s most surprising new star—and has sent a shock wave through Nashville

Photo: Joe Pugliese

Chris Stapleton's acclaimed "Traveller" has put traditional country back in the spotlight.

Chris Stapleton is drinking coffee at a table at Wendell Smith’s, one of his favorite meat-and-threes, in West Nashville. He’s a regular at the joint, often coming in for breakfast when he’s in town. He’s not wearing his instantly recognizable cowboy hat, but his glorious, bushy beard is still a dead giveaway.

“Can I get a picture, brother?” asks a fellow diner.

“Hey Chris, I worked with you on that CMT show last year. Good to see you,” says another.

Stapleton is gracious and appreciative, and sits back down with a sigh. “That’s the new reality, I guess,” he says. “It’s starting to feel like Cheers in here. I’m like Norm at the bar.”

Stapleton’s rocket ride to fame is one of music’s biggest stories of the past year. Released last May, his adored debut, Traveller, is a soulful, stirring album with a decidedly old-school bent, powered by Stapleton’s monster growly voice and with nary a song about hot women and cold beer. Though the album had already wowed critics, the floodgates blew open after Stapleton’s now-legendary and genre-pushing performance with Justin Timberlake at the CMA Awards in November. Beginning with a harmony-heavy version of “Tennessee Whiskey,” a song made famous by George Jones, and peaking with a dazzling rendition of Timberlake’s “Drink You Away,” it left the audience and much of the country slack-jawed. In a crowning-of-the-underdog moment, Stapleton would go on to win three awards that night, including Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year, beating out the likes of superstars Dierks Bentley and Luke Bryan, both of whom in fact Stapleton penned tunes for during more than a decade as a Nashville songwriter. He followed that up with a searing performance on Saturday Night Live, making him one of only a handful of country artists to grace the set. If that wasn’t enough, he took home two Grammy Awards, including Best Country Album, and earned a nomination for Album of the Year, alongside Taylor Swift and Alabama Shakes.

“I don’t think anybody thought we would do the things we’re doing in this short amount of time,” he says. “The stars are lining up and every one that’s there, we’ve gotten.” The “we” isn’t just a reference to his band. Throughout his rapid ascension, Stapleton has had his wife, Morgane, by his side, on stage and off. “We’re doing it all together, so there’s no drama,” he says, fiddling with his cup of coffee. “I’m thirty-seven, but if I was twenty it might be different. I could be splayed out on Broadway doing a bunch of things I might regret.”

Morgane is no slouch in the musical department either. The two met when she, too, was working as a songwriter in a separate publishing house next door on Music Row. She sings alongside her husband at his shows and takes the lead on a cover of “You Are My Sunshine,” which appears on Traveller producer Dave Cobb’s newly released Southern Family compilation. The song holds a special meaning for the couple. At their wedding in 2007, Morgane surprised Stapleton by having its title inscribed on the inside of his ring. “In our first house together we had an empty room where we would sit around and play music,” he says. “That was one of the songs we played a lot.” The pair have two young children, whom they’ve decided to homeschool so they can accompany them on a “family bus” as Stapleton plays shows this spring, major festivals such as Bonnaroo in June, and then a co-headlining tour with Hank Williams, Jr., in August.

While Stapleton’s success has clearly shaken up the country music scene, he has a unique perspective on the notion of an opposition between mainstream and traditional country, given that he’s written a slew of hits for some of Nashville’s biggest stars. “I don’t look at it as mainstream country versus outsider,” he says, adding that it’s like making people choose between certain types of food they love. But he has found himself squarely in the spotlight, proving that commercially successful country doesn’t have to be sugary and slick, though he hardly thinks of himself as a revolutionary. “I’m not reinventing the wheel here,” he says. “I’m not Chuck Berry or Bill Monroe. Guys like that are from outer space.

“And the more good things that happen to this record,” he adds with a grin, “I just might retire.”