On Nov. 4, 2015, Chris Stapleton was a buzzed-about songwriter with his debut album as an artist nominated for a CMA Award. When the clock struck midnight, he was a three-time CMA Awards winner who had given the performance of the night, catapulting himself to superstardom in a few short hours.
Stapleton released his Traveller album in May of 2015, earning critical acclaim and the No. 2 spot on the country albums chart, but no major radio success. However, the Kentucky native had been in Nashville for nearly a decade and a half at that point, singing with the bluegrass band the SteelDrivers and the Jompson Brothers, and writing songs for dozens of big country names, thereby gaining a reputation for his talent in Music City.
When 2015 CMA Awards nominations were announced in early September, Stapleton found himself nominated for Album of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year and New Artist of the Year, up against Kacey Musgraves, Eric Church, Sam Hunt and others. The singer — who joined Luke Bryan for a CMA Awards performance of “Drink a Beer,” which Stapleton wrote and Bryan recorded, in 2013 — was asked to perform at the show, and then, on Nov. 2, the Country Music Association announced that pop superstar Justin Timberlake would be joining him for the moment.
Stapleton and Timberlake had known each other for a couple of years by that point, with Timberlake even tweeting praise for his fellow musician in December of 2014. Prior to their performance, Stapleton shared that he’d asked Timberlake about performing together even prior to the year’s CMAs nominees being announced.
When Stapleton and Timberlake took the CMA Awards stage, he’d already been named New Artist of the Year. An amped-up crowd gave them a loud welcome, and as Stapleton sang the first line of “Tennessee Whiskey,” they whooped and hollered in approval. Timberlake earned a similar greeting when he took lead on the song’s second verse, and Stapleton’s wife Morgane harmonized with them throughout the song.
The trio and their large backing band had the crowd clapping and singing along by the time they finished “Tennessee Whiskey” — but then, they kicked it up a notch with Timberlake’s song “Drink You Away,” again trading lines and harmonizing with Morgane. Television footage of the performance shows Keith Urban filming the moment on his cellphone, Hillary Scott (among others) singing along and, at the end of the performance, her bandmate Charles Kelley raising his arms in approval:
“I’m never afraid to get onstage and sing and play music. That’s my happy place, so that doesn’t make me nervous,” Stapleton shared backstage that night. “I know who was standing next to me, but at the same time, he’s so great and a wonderful person, and makes music even more fun. That was the least of my worries, getting up and playing tonight. The thing I’m most afraid of is saying the wrong thing in a room like this. You guys are more scary to me than that.”
It was a star-making moment, followed by another: Stapleton earned Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year, sweeping the categories in which he was nominated.
“I look at all the faces of all the people that have helped me support my family over the years, the past 15 years writing songs and playing out there. It’s unbelievable. This is an unbelievable thing to me, and I’m not gonna take it lightly,” Stapleton said from the stage when accepting the latter trophy. “I’ve got to thank the six people that came and watched me play in the basement of a bar somewhere, you know? I wouldn’t give anything for those gigs, and maybe we’ll play some bigger ones now.”
After the 2015 CMA Awards, Stapleton immediately saw the effects of his high-profile successes: His album surged to No. 1 on the iTunes chart and re-entered the Billboard 200 at No. 1 — the first debut country album to hold that spot since Scotty McCreery’s Clear as Day in 2011 — for two weeks. (Timberlake, too, saw returns: His team released “Drink You Away” as a country single, and in February of 2016, it debuted at No. 60 on the Country Airplay chart — Timberlake’s first country hit as a solo artist.)
Traveller was certified platinum in February of 2016 and, at that year’s end, was the year’s fourth-best-selling album overall and top-selling country album. It earned double-platinum status in July of 2017 and was the year’s second-best-selling country album, after Stapleton’s own sophomore record, From A Room, Vol. 1.
In 2019, Traveller set a record for most weeks at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Americana / Folk Albums chart (81 weeks), and in March of 2020, the album was certified quadruple platinum. As of Nov. 4, 2020, the album is still hanging out on both the Americana / Folk and Country Albums charts, notching 233 weeks on the former and 287 weeks on the latter.
“I have no idea what’s next. I’ve been in the music business a while, but I’ve never done anything like this,” Stapleton shared after the 2016 CMA Awards. “It’s been a bit overwhelming, but I’m going to do my best to handle it with some degree of grace. I’m gonna keep making music that hopefully I think is good, and whatever comes out of that, that will be fine with me.”
A Best Country Album Grammy and Album of the Year nomination, as well as five ACM Awards at the 2016 ceremony, are what came next. Additionally, at the 2016 CMA Awards, Stapleton won Music Video of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year, and earned his first Entertainer of the Year nod.
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