Chris Stapleton appeared to be one of those storybook overnight sensations: a troubadour who came out of nowhere to become a major star in the autumn of 2015 on the strength of his debut album Traveller. Like most overnight sensations, Stapleton had a long, hard road behind him. He had been laboring behind in the scenes in Nashville for years, leading the progressive bluegrass group the SteelDrivers and working as a professional songwriter, scoring hits with George Strait ("Love's Gonna Make It Alright"), Kenny Chesney ("Never Wanted Nothing More"), Luke Bryan ("Drink a Beer"), and Darius Rucker ("Come Back Song"). These tunes just scratched the surface of Stapleton's résumé: Brad Paisley, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, and Tim McGraw all recorded his songs, as did Adele, who cut "If It Hadn't Been for Love" as a bonus track for her 2011 smash 21. All these covers signaled a deep reservoir of goodwill within the industry for the songwriter, and this goodwill bubbled to the surface in the fall of 2015, when he took home three major awards at the Country Music Association Awards: Best Male Vocalist, Album of the Year, and New Artist of the Year. All these awards boosted his visibility, leading to four Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year, and his first major hit, "Nobody to Blame."
It was success that was a long time coming. A native of Kentucky -- he was born in Lexington and raised in the smaller Staffordsville -- he moved to Nashville in 2001 in hopes of making it in country music. He signed a publishing deal with Sea Gayle Music and started to work steadily, writing songs and paying bills through various jobs, and playing music all the while. In 2008, he formed the SteelDrivers, a bluegrass group that received quite a bit of acclaim over the next two years. In 2009, the group was named Emerging Artist of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, and the following year they received three Grammy nominations, including Best Bluegrass Album, for Reckless. Despite this success, Stapleton left the group in April 2010 and formed the Jompson Brothers with guitarist Greg McKee, bassist J.T. Cure, and drummer Brad McNamee. By 2013, the southern rock band was no more, and Stapleton signed with Mercury Nashville, releasing "What Are You Listening To?" in October of that year. The single didn't go anywhere, so its accompanying album was scrapped, and he recorded a new record with co-producer Dave Cobb. This is the album that became Traveller, his solo debut.
Traveller appeared in May 2015 to strong reviews but it didn't do much on country radio; in fact, it was overshadowed by the chart-topping "Crash and Burn," a song Stapleton wrote with Jesse Frasure that was turned into a hit by Thomas Rhett. Nevertheless, its warm reception by critics and peers meant that it racked up a number of CMA nominations and, in a surprise to most observers, it took home three awards that December: Best Male Vocalist, New Artist of the Year, and Album of the Year. Suddenly, Stapleton was a hot property, receiving four Grammy nominations a few weeks after the CMAs, and soon, all that acclaim turned into sales, with Traveller reaching number one on the U.S. country charts and receiving a Gold certification from the RIAA, while "Nobody to Blame" became his first country radio hit. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine