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How 'Tennessee Whiskey' Evolved into a Modern Country Standard

Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP and Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

In 2015, a headline-grabbing 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 song, previously associated with George Jones' 1983 hit recording, became synonymous with Stapleton's surging career. Yet there's more to the song's story than recordings by two of the best vocalists of their times.

Who Wrote 'Tennessee Whiskey'?

Consistent George Strait and Toby Keith hit-writer Dean Dillon ("The Chair," "Marina Del Rey") and "the Blue Jean Country Queen," Linda Hargrove, co-wrote the song at Nashville's Bluebird Cafe by the early '80s. It's a classic country drinking song, as the title implies, but with a twist. A lover saves the narrator from alcohol abuse, proving their intentions to be "as smooth as Tennessee Whiskey" and "as sweet as strawberry wine."

Who Originally Sang 'Tennessee Whiskey'?

Strait passed on recording "Tennessee Whiskey" soon after its completion. The original version was instead cut by country music artist David Allan Coe for a 1981 studio 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 interpretation was great, but it took an even greater song interpreter to properly emote Dillon and Hargrove's lyrics.

The version Jones cut for 1983 album Shine On became a major hit. It was a continuation of Jones' comeback after real-life drinking issues derailed his career in the '70s.

Before Stapleton recorded "Tennessee Whiskey" for 2015 album Traveller, his 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 version of the song. In all likelihood, no one in the studio that day had one iota that Cobb's idea 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 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? Jones didn't crack the Hot Country Singles chart, but his viral success did net an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show.

READ MORE: Songwriter Dean Dillon + More Selected to the Country Music Hall of Fame

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 four 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.

This post was originally published on September 15, 2017. 

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How 'Tennessee Whiskey' Evolved into a Modern Country Standard