Thursday morning, a lot of country music fans were asking the same question: Who is Chris Stapleton?
Though his debut album, Traveller, had not produced any radio hits, Lexington-born and Paintsville/Staffordsville-raised Stapleton won every award he was nominated for Wednesday night at the Country Music Association Awards, taking home best new artist, male vocalist of the year and album of the year.
In doing so, Stapleton beat out competition much better known to country music fans, including Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton. But from the honors, it was clear members of the Country Music Association knew Stapleton, a well-traveled and widely liked songwriter.
"Watching Chris Stapleton have this night is so uplifting," Bryan said in accepting the night's final award for entertainer of the year, moments after Stapleton bested him for the male vocalist prize.
While Stapleton's album hasn't topped the charts, some of the 37-year-old's songs have, including Kenny Chesney's Never Wanted Nothing More.
But that started to change Thursday for Stapleton, who burst into the iTunes top 100 with six songs, including No. 2 Tennessee Whiskey, which he performed with Justin Timberlake during Wednesday's awards show.
During a decade-and-a-half working as a songwriter, Stapleton was also part of several bands, including The SteelDrivers, which won an International Bluegrass Music Association Award for emerging artist of the year and scored three Grammy Award nominations. After he left the SteelDrivers in 2010, Stapleton formed a Southern rock band, The Jompson Brothers.
But with Traveller, he struck out on his own and now is reaping the rewards.
Stapleton was a man of few words in accepting his awards Wednesday night, saving the most for last.
"Two years ago, I lost my dad," he said after being named male vocalist prize of the year, breaking Shelton's five-year winning streak. "I made this record thinking about music he liked. He would have liked to have seen this."
Stapleton acknowledged artists in the room whom he had written with and said, "This is an unbelievable thing to me, and I'm not going to take it lightly."
In giving thanks, he acknowledged his wife, Morgane, a regular stage presence with him. He also mentioned "cousins in Kentucky" and joked that he probably should thank "six people who came to see me in a bar somewhere. Maybe we'll play some big ones now."
Stapleton did play with the biggest star in the room Wednesday night, teaming with Timberlake for a barn-burning rendition of his cover of Tennessee Whiskey (a Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove song first recorded by David Allan Coe and then taken to the Top 10 by George Jones in 1983) and Timberlake's Drink You Away.
That Stapleton performed a song that had its heyday in the early 1980s was indicative that his style in more traditional country than most of the artists being presented and honored on the CMA broadcast, a point not lost on Herald-Leader music critic Walter Tunis in his blog post about Stapleton's wins.
"Stapleton's music runs against almost every commercial trend Nashville otherwise celebrated at the ceremony — so much so that victories for his highly traditional music ... are genuinely shocking for a genre that has turned its back so shamelessly on its past," Tunis wrote on the blog at LexGo.com.
But Tunis also noted that the CMA wins probably would have a greater effect on Stapleton's career than they would have for some of the more established stars.
"What it means firstly is this morning many eager fans have woken up to what we knew here in Kentucky all along — that in a country world ruled by chart numbers, image and pop accessibility, Stapleton isn't some contrived, corporate Nashville foot soldier," Tunis wrote. "He's a real-deal singer and writer championing true country songcraft more than any commercially visible artist since Dwight Yoakam."
According to Billboard, Traveller is the first album to be chosen album of the year without a Top 40 single in 12 years. The last time it happened was in 2003 for an album by an artist with a little more name recognition: American IV: The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash.
But the next time Stapleton goes on a country music awards show, name recognition probably won't be a problem.