In 2015, a historic CMA awards duet with Justin Timberlake sling-shotted Chris Stapleton’s version of “Tennessee Whiskey” to the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. The cover, often associated with George Jones’ 1983 hit recording, became synonymous with Stapleton’s upstart career. As is often the case, the song lived an eventful life before and after two old-school singer’s beloved versions.
Consistent George Strait hit-writer Dean Dillon (“The Chair,” “Marina Del Rey”) and “the Blue Jean Country Queen,” Linda Hargrove, co-wrote the song in the early ’80s. Strait passed on recording the song soon after. It’s a classic country drinking song, as the title implies, but with a twist. The narrator’s lover saved him from alcohol abuse, proving her intentions to be “as smooth as Tennessee Whiskey” and “as sweet as strawberry wine.”
The original version was instead cut by country music artist David Allan Coe for an 1981 album of the same title. Coe’s recording stalled at number 77. However, the song’s inclusion on what seems like dozens of different greatest hits compilations for Coe guaranteed the original version wouldn’t slide into obscurity.
Coe’s version was great, but it took an even greater song interpreter to properly emote Dillon and Hargroves’ lyrics.
Jones made the version he cut for 1983 album Shine On a major hit. It was a continuation of Jones’ career comeback, after real-life drinking issues derailed his career in the late ’70s.
Before recording his version for 2015’s Traveler, Stapleton’s blues-tinged take existed merely as a warm-up song for soundchecks and rehearsals. Upon hearing it, producer Dave Cobb suggested that Stapleton cut his own recording of the song. In all likelihood, no one in the studio that day had one iota that Cobb’s suggestion would go platinum.
The Voice contestant and former Steel Magnolia member Meghan Linsey added a little bit of soul to her own 2015 version. A year later, Dean’s Martin’s daughter Deana recorded it in the style of a throwback pop crooner. And of course, who can forget YouTube sensation Kris Jones’ mind-blowing sing-along captured while he was driving around with his adorable daughter? Jones hasn’t cracked the hot country singles chart yet, but his viral success did net an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show.
A song that once highlighted Jones’ live sets reached new heights in 2015. It grew in popularity as Stapleton’s momentum netted him the first of consecutive CMA Male Vocalist of the Year awards. What pushed Stapleton and all versions of “Tennesee Whiskey” to new heights, though, was that Timberlake collaboration on worldwide television.