NASHVILLE — When the sun rose on the morning of Nov. 5, 2015, it shone on a different Nashville than the one it left the night before.
That evening, Chris Stapleton turned the country music world on its ear by unexpectedly winning three trophies at the CMA Awards — New Artist of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year for his Dave Cobb-produced tour de force, Traveller — and delivering a star-making performance with pop’s Justin Timberlake.
On Nov. 2, Stapleton will return to the CMA Awards, where he may cap his life-changing year by taking home the biggest award of the night: Entertainer of the Year.
Since last year's awards show, Traveller has sold more than a million albums, and Stapleton has played to packed arenas, appeared on Saturday Night Live, played both the CMA Music Festival and Bonnaroo, opened for rockers Guns N’ Roses and performed for a crowd of 150,000 on Lower Broadway on New Year’s Eve.
Not bad for someone who originally wasn’t sure who would buy his records.
“Do we know where the audience is going to come from? I don’t think so,” Stapleton told The Tennessean in May 2015, just days before Traveller was released. “But we all agree it’s going to come from a lot of different outlets. Putting a record out is just the beginning of trying to find out who the audience is. ... All you can do is present the music to as many people as possible.”
In the 18 months since its release, Traveller found its audience in traditional country and Americana listeners as well as fans of contemporary mainstream country music. That's a tough tightrope to walk, but Traveller did it effortlessly.
At this moment, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more beloved artist in Nashville than Chris Stapleton. For several years before Traveller, he was the lead singer and one of the primary songwriters for the hard-driving bluegrass band The SteelDrivers and penned hits for George Strait, Josh Turner and Luke Bryan, among others.
The acclaim and exposure he's received over the last year have been a reason for optimism for those within and outside the music industry who've championed his work over the last 15 years. As Lee Ann Womack said when opening for Stapleton last week, it's encouraging to "see one of the good guys win."
Stapleton was not available for comment this week, but Cobb, who also plays in Stapleton's band during Nashville-area concerts, said, “We knew that it was a special record, but we thought it was special just for us. There was no planning that (Traveller) would sell any more than 30,000 copies. We felt like if we could just sell enough that we would get to do this again, we won. ... We certainly had no idea what was to come. Not a clue.”
Stapleton has won a slew of honors in the last 12 months, including two Grammys. It seems likely that he'll leave this year's CMA Awards with at least one more trophy: In addition to Entertainer of the Year, he's nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year and Single of the Year (for "Nobody to Blame"). "You Are My Sunshine," recorded by Morgane Stapleton and her husband for Cobb's Southern Family compilation, is up for Musical Event of the Year as well.
Perhaps more interesting than the results of the upcoming CMA Awards, though, is seeing where Stapleton and his music go from here. Says Cobb, even with all of Stapleton's recent successes, “Chris is still the same guy. He’s never changed.”