What You Don't Know About Chris Stapleton

Chris Stapleton burst onto the country music scene in 2015, seemingly out of nowhere, with his mega-hit debut album "Traveler," led by the smooth, sultry single "Tennessee Whiskey," a song first made famous by country music legend George Jones but given a whole new vibe by Stapleton (via YouTube). 

More albums followed, starting with 2017's "From a Room Vol. 1," followed by "From a Room Vol. 2" later that same year, and then "Starting Over" in 2020. Along the way, he's participated in a dizzying array of musical collaborations with a genre-spanning series of artists, including Sheryl Crow, Justin Timberlake, and even Adele. And while Stapleton may have seen like a new arrival to some, the reality is far more complex. "I'm new to a lot of people, and that's true," he said in a 2016 interview with CBS News, explaining that he's no overnight sensation, having spent years kicking around Music City before hitting it big. "I'm not new to a lot of people in Nashville," he added. "They're like, 'Man, I've known that guy for years. He's been buggin' everybody!'"

Even though he's gone on to become one of the most ubiquitous personalities in country music, there's far more to this ultra-talented, award-winning singer-songwriter than meets the eye. To learn more, read on to find out what you don't know about Chris Stapleton.  

He comes from a long line of Kentucky coal miners

Chris Stapleton was born and raised in Kentucky, where his father worked in a coal mine — as his father and grandfather had before. Stapleton wasn't pushed into working in a coal mine, but he did grow up in a home that valued the importance of a solid work ethic. "We were always told that we could be anything we wanted to be as long as we worked hard at it and kept our head down and believed in it," he told Paste

In fact, a hunk of coal remains a memento that keeps Stapleton connected to his father, who died more than a decade ago. As NPR noted, during a crucial performance in front of influential country radio types, he dedicated a song to his dad while that piece of coal sat upon a stool on the stage. "It's not really fragile," he said of the coal, "it's heavy. That sat on my dad's desk for years. It was the first piece of coal he ever mined."

Chris Stapleton landed a publishing deal days after arriving in Nashville

After graduating high school, Chris Stapleton met some local Kentucky songwriters and glimpsed a vision of his future. "I didn't know they would pay you money to sit in a room and write songs for other people," Stapleton told CBS News. Once he realized "that that could be a job, I thought, 'That's the job for me. I gotta figure out how to do that.'" After impressing friends with the songs he'd written, Stapleton decided to head to Nashville's famed Music Row to turn pro. It didn't take him long. "Four days later I had a publishing deal," he recalled. 

When he first started, he told Paste, there was a certain degree of trial and error. "I wrote two and three songs a day just trying to figure it out," he said. He was also eager to collaborate with other songwriters to hone in on their secrets. "There's always something to take away that you can kind of file away and put in the arsenal," he explained.

He's written loads of hits for other artists

After landing his publishing deal, Stapleton proved to have a knack for churning out hits, including six No. 1 songs on the country charts — for other singers, that is. Asked by CBS News to estimate how other artists have recorded many of the songs he'd written, he offered a guess. "Probably pushing 200, something like that," he replied. "I don't know."

Among the numerous Nashville stars who've recorded Stapleton's songs are Thomas Rhett, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Darius Rucker, Miranda Lambert, and many more (via Rolling Stone).  

Stapleton's songs haven't been confined to country artists, either, given that such artists have recorded his songs as Justin Timberlake, Sheryl Crow, and even Adele, who recorded his "If It Hadn't Been For Love" as the B-side for her 2010 single "Rolling in the Deep." Adele subsequently collaborated with Stapleton on her 2021 track "Easy on Me" — a song that was not, interestingly enough, written by Stapleton.

He was in a couple of bands before finding fame as a solo artist

While carving out a career as one of Nashville's top songwriters would be enough for some, Chris Stapleton wanted to perform his songs onstage. That, he told NPR, proved far more of an uphill climb than songwriting. As he explained it, he realized he didn't quite fit into the preconceived notions of a Nashville star. "I can only be me," he said of trying to tailor himself to fit a certain mold. When he finally discovered a record label he felt could work with him, ultimately, "it just didn't happen" when the deal fell through.

Putting his dreams of becoming a solo artist on the back burner, instead, he joined a bluegrass outfit called The SteelDrivers and tailored his songwriting for the group's repertoire. "I was writing songs about killing people and burying them," Stapleton told American Songwriter. "That's what the SteelDrivers stuff was. It was a lot of tradition."

After quitting the SteelDrivers in 2010, he launched The Jompson Brothers, which boasted a harder, Southern-rock sound than the traditional bluegrass of his previous group. The group released one album, 2010's "The Jompson Brothers," and landed a gig opening for the Zac Brown Band, but evaporated when Stapleton began seriously pursuing a solo career.

He wrote a letter to Tom Petty in defense of country music

In 2013, rocker Tom Petty gave an interview with Rolling Stone in which he criticized country music, complaining it had become "generic" and lost its edge. Chris Stapleton read that interview and disagreed so much that it spurred him to write Petty an open letter. After telling Petty that many country artists would cite him as influential, he suggested a suggestion. "So, in the interest of making Country music less "s****y" (your words), I suggest a collaboration," Stapleton wrote (via Taste of Country), inviting Petty to write songs with him or produce one of the songs that he'd written. 

While Petty never took him up on the offer, in 2017, Stapleton was invited to open for Petty and the Heartbreakers for a few dates. "I got to spend a few minutes with Tom, talking, and the last thing he said to me was, 'I hope we get to do more of this,'" Stapleton told Taste of Country. Reflecting on Petty's death later that year, Stapleton mused, "I would not trade anything for those shows and that brief moment I got to speak with Tom. It was a highlight of the year for me."

His wife Morgane Stapleton is also a talented singer-songwriter in her own right

Anyone who's seen Chris Stapleton in concert will recognize what a big role his wife, Morgane Stapleton, plays in his live shows, providing backup vocals and more. 

The couple first met in 2003, Morgane told The Washington Post, through a friend who worked at his music publishing company. When Chris asked her to write a song with him, it became their first date. "We didn't get much writing done that night," she joked. According to Rolling Stone, the couple married in 2007 and welcomed their first child in 2009 (via People).

What fans may not realize, however, is that Morgane is far more than just her husband's wife and backup singer; she's also a sought-after songwriter herself. As The Boot recalled, she's written songs that top country artists have recorded. Among them: Carrie Underwood's 2005 hit "Don't Forget to Remember Me" (co-written with Kelley Lovelace and Ashley Gorley); Lee Ann Womack's "Liars Lie" (which she co-wrote with Liz Rose and Sally Barris); Reba McEntire's "Ain't Got Nothin' On My Pain" and Trisha Yearwood's "We Tried," the latter two written by Morgane, her husband, and Liz Rose.

Why 2015 CMA Awards may have been the biggest night of his life

In 2015, Chris Stapleton released his first solo album, "Traveler," with "Tennessee Whiskey" its first single. The single — not to mention Stapleton's fledgling career as a solo artist — received a significant boost during that year's CMA Awards, when he was joined by Justin Timberlake for a duet on the track. The performance, noted The Guardian, was "a moment of pure TV magic if there ever was one," that held the entire audience "visibly rapt with awe."

To say the electrifying performance generated attention is an understatement; within hours of the performance, The Guardian reported, "Tennessee Whiskey" shot to No. 2 on iTunes, while "Traveller" became the No. 1 album.

Meanwhile, Stapleton also wound up sweeping the awards that night, taking the honors for Album of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, and New Artist of the Year. That trio of wins placed Stapleton in the annals of Nashville history as the first artist to win all three during the same year.

He's been showered with awards

Chris Stapleton's history-making awards sweep at the 2015 CMA Awards was only the beginning when it came to award-show recognition. Since then, Stapleton has been nominated for 16 Grammys, including three with the SteelDrivers. As of 2022, Stapleton has won eight Grammys, including three wins for Best Country Album (with "Starting Over," "From a Room Vol.. 1," and "Traveler" all taking that honor). 

Meanwhile, he's also won 10 ACM Awards (including Male Artist of the Year in 2022), 14 CMA Awards, 11 ASCAP Country Music Awards, five Billboard Music Awards, two iHeart Music Awards, and in 2019, reported Billboard, he was named ACM's Artist-Songwriter of the Decade.

While winning awards has become second nature for Stapleton, he's insistent that adding to his ever-expanding trophy shelf has never been a motivating factor for him. "I don't make records to win awards," Stapleton once told Taste of Country. "I make records to make records and hopefully make the records as good as they can be. That's also what these awards hopefully represent, and I think that's the wonderful thing about the Grammys."

How traveling the wrong roads led him to the right path

To a certain extent, becoming a hugely popular singer/songwriter came about for Chris Stapleton through a process of elimination. That began in college, when he attended Nashville's Vanderbilt University, studying engineering and business before dropping out. "The main thing I learned from both of those things is that I didn't want to be an engineer or an economist," he explained in an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune. "Sometimes, when you're 18, career paths are not clear." Ultimately, he said he felt fortunate to have been able to familiarize himself with engineering and business "because all the wrong roads bring you to the right roads."

Of course, he traveled many other wrong roads on his way to finding his true path. Those, he told CBS News, were his "starving artist things," which included his fair share of unfulfilling jobs. "You ever had somebody stick, like, a pizza coupon on your windshield in a parking lot?" he asked. "I did that. I was a car salesman, if you can believe it."

Selling cars, in fact, remains Stapleton's least-favorite vocation — even though he only lasted less than three months or so. As he recalled for The San Diego Union-Tribune, "everybody hates a car salesman! They assume you're lying to them the instant you open your mouth. So I always try to treat car salesmen a little better than most people do. It's not an easy job."

The reason he still keeps his Papa John's employee badge in his medicine cabinet

Another job that Chris Stapleton held while pursuing his dream of a music career, noted a profile in American Songwriter, was delivering pizza for national fast-food chain Papa John's

That particular experience has stuck with him. As he divulged in an interview with CMT, he hung onto his Papa John's employee ID badge and kept it in the medicine cabinet of his bathroom. "Every time I open my medicine cabinet, I see it as a reminder that I worked a lot of different things to be doing what I'm doing now," he explained.

Stapleton eventually pulled that name tag out of his medicine cabinet — but only, according to a fan's tweet, so it could be included in an exhibit devoted to Stapleton in Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame, which officially opened to the public in July 2022. 

He prefers bourbon to beer

For Chris Stapleton, "Tennessee Whiskey" isn't just a hit single; it's also something of a statement about his own personal preference when it comes to imbibing. During an interview with the Los Angeles Times, his wife, Morgane Stapleton, revealed that he is decidedly not a beer drinker, preferring the harder stuff. "Just not into it," he said of beer, jokingly adding, "It wasn't for lack of trying. But I like bourbon. I'll stick with that."

Stapleton has managed to parlay his love of bourbon into philanthropy. In 2021, Gear Patrol reported that Outlaw State of Kind (the charity founded by Stapleton and his wife Morgane) partnered with Buffalo Trace Distillery to auction off bottles of an extremely rare single-barrel distillation of the distillery's E. H. Taylor, Jr. brand, with the proceeds going to the charity. That endeavor went so well, the outlet reported the following year, they did it again — with Stapleton himself hand-picking the barrel this time. 

"The first glass of E. H. Taylor, Jr. I ever had was in the studio. Vance Powell, engineer of both music and good times, brought a bottle to the session for inspiration," Stapleton said. "That week, we recorded an entire album, and that album was 'Traveller.' We've made it a point to keep a bottle around ever since."

He made a cameo in Game of Thrones

HBO's "Game of Thrones" managed to sneak several musicians into the show for clever cameos, such when Ed Sheeran played a singing soldier (via YouTube) or when Coldplay's Will Champion was a musician at the infamous Red Wedding. One that fans may have missed took place in a final-season episode titled "The Long Night," when Chris Stapleton appeared onscreen for just a few seconds, playing a Wildling warrior killed by White Walkers before being resurrected as one of the undead. 

As Stapleton — a massive fan of the show — told Rolling Stone, he approached producers about somehow being part of it. "I was like, you know, I would gladly fly to wherever in the world just to be a small part and get to watch that show going down," he explained. "They were gracious enough to let me come participate that way." Stapleton, his bass player, and tour manager all played Wildlings; luckily, their lack of acting experience wasn't a problem. "They knew we weren't actors," Stapleton conceded. "So the direction was basically, we're going to place you, and when we tell you to, open your eyes. And they trained us on how White Walkers are supposed to stand up and move when they're first waking up. We had a crash course in that."

Stapleton's wife Morgane commemorated his cameo on Instagram, sharing a photo of his brief onscreen appearance. "My wildling is a white walker," she wrote in the caption.