He is a modern — and modest — icon of country music. Chris Stapleton opens up about the work, the songs, his family, and what it really means to be an entertainer.
His new album may be called Higher, but nobody in Nashville is more grounded than Chris Stapleton.
Here’s how we know: After winning the coveted Entertainer of the Year award from the Academy of Country Music in May 2023 — his first time taking home the grand prize — you could hear in his acceptance speech how completely unexpected it was. “By any imaginable metric, I don’t deserve this,” he said when he took the stage to accept the trophy.
While that 2023 win was a substantial achievement, Stapleton had already collected a long list of awards and accolades in his nine years as a solo artist: He has eight Grammy awards and countless CMA awards and ACM awards. And then there are the bona fide hit songs he’s penned, both for himself and for fellow artists George Strait, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, Lee Ann Womack, Jason Aldean, Adele, Thomas Rhett, Darius Rucker, Dierks Bentley, Josh Turner, Sheryl Crow, Joss Stone, Alison Krauss, and Patty Loveless — with more to come. He’s still committed to writing the best songs, whether he’s recording them or not.
Stapleton’s latest album Higher was produced by Stapleton, his wife, Morgane, and Dave Cobb, and all 14 tracks were written by Stapleton, either alone or with some of Nashville’s most prolific songwriters.
His approach to making an album is simple. “My wife picks the songs,” he says. “Most of the songs are heavily influenced by things that she likes. She has excellent taste in songs. And Brian Wright has known our catalog for a long, long time. He knows songs of mine that I’ve forgotten. I don’t think we’ve made a record without a song that he’s reminded us of.”
Wright, the former EVP of A&R at Universal Music Group Nashville, told C&I about his most vivid memory of Stapleton: “Chris and I have been friends for 20 years. Everyone in town always knew he was the best singer in the world. He was just enjoying songwriting and didn’t like the spotlight. I was in my office one day taking meetings, and people would play me songs all day long. The same damn song, over and over. In my last meeting, I heard a Chris song. We went to lunch, talked about life, and when we walked out to the parking lot, I said, ‘Let’s go make a country record.’ It was just time. He and Morgane went out to New Mexico and bought a Grand Wagoneer. They drove it back across the country, and he wrote the songs for Traveller, his debut album in 2015. I always knew that if the rest of the world could hear him sing, they’d be like, ‘This is the best singer in the world.’ We just needed to turn the masses onto him.”
There’s something else everyone in Nashville knows. It’s that the connection the Stapletons have in their professional life is enviable, and the connection in their personal life is even more so. Everything they do reflects the same kind of harmony.
That started when they met as songwriters at the same publishing house in 2003. “She would make the joke that I’d ask her to write songs at 8:00 on a Friday night. And she wasn’t wrong. Some things are electricity. Sometimes you just know those things intuitively about who your love interest is,” says Stapleton, who married Morgane in 2007. “You can’t explain those things. There’s an electricity to it. I think when people talk about lightning striking this way, it’s not really like a bolt. It’s more like a buzz. Those are the things that happen that aren’t really explainable. And then one day you wake up 16 years later and you’re like, ‘Okay. I still feel kind of buzzed.’”
Stapleton’s done the math and arrived at the fact that they’ve been with each other almost as long as they were without each other. “We don’t necessarily remember it not being that way. From a work standpoint, we’re a married couple. And like anybody else, we might be getting on each other’s nerves or something,” he admits. “But if we’re away from each other for more than two days — because we do work, live, and raise children together — on the rare occasion we’re apart, we’re sort of like teenagers. We’re like, ‘I miss you,’ and, ‘I miss you too.’ And that’s a really sweet and wonderful thing.”
Even if they disagree on something, the Stapletons’ goals are the same. And they’re always aligned, he says. “We’re trying to make the best out of whatever we’re doing,” he says. “She’s the glue.”
Stapleton is quick to point out that everything he’s accomplished so far has been a group effort. The songwriting, the shows, and yes, the awards. “If Entertainer of the Year means the person that sells the most tickets, that’s not me. If Entertainer of the Year means the person that has the most fame or followers or whatever, that’s not me. So when I say, ‘By any imaginable metric, I don’t deserve it,’ that’s what I mean. People chose to vote that that was me, and I appreciate it. But that moniker certainly belongs to everybody who’s worked on the entity of what we do. Those awards are for everybody that works on it, even though my name’s on it.”
The job, he maintains, is to capture the most magic you can, if it’s indeed there to be had. “Sometimes it’s not,” he says. “Sometimes you just have to quit or go eat dinner or surrender to the fact that it’s not there — to admit defeat or claim that it’s as good as you can make it, even if you think that you can do a better job of it.”
Stapleton’s perspective comes from years of writing songs on his own and with others. At the age of 18, he wrote “Nobody’s Fool,” which ended up on Miranda Lambert’s 2011 Four the Record album. And one of his earliest co-writes was with Morgane and Guy Clark on an Alan Jackson song called “Talk Is Cheap.”
“I came into songwriting with a fair understanding of how to do it. The cowriting thing was a new animal to learn when I moved to Nashville. It was exciting because I had good fortune and got to write with some of the best songwriters. It was pure luck to land in the lap of good people. Every time I write with anybody, I still learn something about songwriting from them,” he says. “One of my friends talks about songwriting and the ways that you reach up into the sky with the antenna and hope you get something down. I learned that the days I felt like I had nothing to contribute were the days that I should make sure I got to the office. Because most of the time my co-writer would have his antenna on full blast. And then you can jump in on that wave. It’s so exciting when that happens. There’s an excitement in the not knowing.”
When you’re working hard at honing your craft in country music, it may not resemble someone else’s version of hard work. But Stapleton’s father taught him what it means to work hard, in whatever profession you’re in. “My work ethic comes from my dad, and I’m not sure that it’s altogether healthy. I’m working on some work-life balance,” he admits. “My dad was a coal miner. He worked long hours his whole life, and he died very young. I’m trying not to do that. That may be who I am in a lot of ways, and I think about him every day.”
His siblings, who bookended him, taught him life lessons as well. “Sometimes you’re so close to whatever there is around you, you don’t even know what you’re learning from it. I have an older brother and a younger sister who both do great work in the world,” Stapleton says. “They’re so giving of themselves and I admire that about them.”
That kind of wisdom is a significant part of what Stapleton brings home to his own family. He and Morgane now have five children, from teenagers on down. “The thing we try to impart on them is that it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to make mistakes, and owning those mistakes is important,” he said. “Here’s what I hope for my children: that they are the best parts of me and that they can overcome the worst parts of me. I want my children to be themselves, whoever they are. I want that for them more than I want it for me.”
In his more than 20 years in Nashville, Stapleton has steadily become his own best version of himself. First as a songwriter, a background vocalist, a player in the SteelDrivers and the Jompson Brothers, and now as a solo artist. And he credits all those gigs as ones that built him.
“Is it an advantage to have that kind of experience? I think 100 percent it’s an advantage to have understanding and self-awareness around who you are, what you can do, and what your strengths and your weaknesses are. I was able to develop all those things before I set foot into the upfront kind of thing,” he says. “I’m comfortable in writing songs and being able to play those songs. I have what I have and I’m comfortable with the tools that I have.”
His live shows now fill up arenas and stadiums, but Stapleton just thinks of himself simply as a guy who makes music.
“If there’s anything entertaining about a guy who stands up on stage and stays plugged in, then I am an entertainer. Willie Nelson used to joke that he was plugged in so he wouldn’t float away. I don’t run all over or swing all over the arena. That is not me. Those are special talents that I don’t have. My chiropractor’s good, but not that good,” he laughs. “I never had a burning desire inside me to make that kind of spectacle. The spectacle was never the point to me.”
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