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Feel Like Everyone Is Singing Chris Stapleton’s ‘Tennessee Whiskey’? They Are

T-Pain was at a karaoke party last year when an R&B-flavored country ballad starting playing over the system. The rapper-turned-singer didn’t recognize it, so he opened up Shazam to listen — and the result came back as “Tennessee Whiskey,” by Chris Stapleton. “I made it a part of my ‘sad playlist,’” T-Pain tells RS. “The lyrics spoke to me.”

Songs from decades past are routinely revived or rediscovered, and that’s currently happening in a big way with “Tennessee Whiskey,” a 44-year-old honky-tonk song about salvation by someone who’s as smooth as the titular liquor. After languishing for decades, it’s suddenly become ubiquitous, heard on officially released studio versions and a growing pile of homemade YouTube videos. In December, a clip of T-Pain singing the song — without his once signature use of Auto-Tune — became a viral sensation, accruing 2.8 million views on his TikTok account and 2 million on Instagram.

The number of remakes, though, isn’t as surprising as the variety of them. Apart from T-Pain’s quiet-storm makeover, “Tennessee Whiskey” has recently been recast as reggae (by Cas Haley), R&B-soul (by Teddy Swims), stark Americana (by the late actor Harry Dean Stanton), and blues (by actress and singer Keala Settle) — just a few of the more than 50 covers on the market.

Mexican roots singer-songwriter Carin León has one of the most dynamic versions. “It makes you feel like a drug the first time you hear it,” he tells RS. “The song is magical.” After first singing it with a hired band at a birthday party for his father, León has begun including “Tennessee Whiskey” in his concerts. “I leave the song for the end of the show,” he says, “and when people hear those first notes, they go crazy.”

Dean Dillon, the country songwriter who co-wrote “Tennessee Whiskey” with the late Linda Hargrove, is still grappling with its late-period comeback. “I’ve had so many people text me when someone’s singing that song,” he says. “I can be in Europe and someone is playing it. Never in my wildest dreams would I think it would have that kind of impact.”

“Tennessee Whiskey” dates back to 1980, when Dillon, then a rising songwriter and artist in his own right, ventured out to the Bluebird Cafe, Nashville’s legendary listening room, to hear Hargrove. Impressed, Dillon went over and introduced himself after her set. “Her sister was standing next to us and if looks could kill, I’d been a dead man,” he recalls. “I think her sister thought I was trying to pick Linda up.”

In fact, Dillon wanted to write with Hargrove, whose songs had been covered by Olivia Newton-John, Lynn Anderson, and Tanya Tucker. He’d already written a chorus: “You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey/You’re as sweet as strawberry wine/You’re as warm as a glass of brandy/And honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time.” But the rest of the song was proving elusive. Later that night, at Hargrove’s home, the two finished “Tennessee Whiskey” in, he recalls, about an hour. “She jumped in on the verses and put the pedal to the floor,” says Dillon. (Hargrove, whom Dillon calls “a free-spirited hippie,” died in 2010.)

Dillon first pitched the finished song to George Strait — who declined. “It was no big deal,” Dillon says. “Shoot, I was playing him about 20 songs. It was just one more he passed on. I never held it against him.” (Strait wound up recording six songs written or co-written by Dillon on his first album, 1981’s Strait Country, and would make Dillon his go-to songwriter in the future.)

Instead, “Tennessee Whiskey” found its way to outlaw country honcho David Allan Coe, whose aching honky-tonk take, with its distinctly Merle Haggard vibe, was a modest country hit in 1981. A few years later, George Jones’ more produced rendition went all the way to Number 2 and he also made “Tennessee Whiskey” a regular part of his set.

But by and large, the song had disappeared from the collective consciousnesses until about a decade ago. During a soundcheck in Charlottesville, Virginia, Stapleton started playing it with his band and decided to leave it in the set. “It was a song we did as a cover,” Stapleton tells RS. “It was, ‘Well, let’s just play that tonight.’” During the recording of Stapleton’s 2015 album Traveller, “Tennessee Whiskey” came up yet again. “We were just goofing around, playing it to warm up, and [engineer] Vance [Powell] hit the red light,” he says. “And that’s what you hear.”

For months, the single — which had been rearranged into a slow jam by borrowing the melody from Etta James’ 1967 song “I’d Rather Go Blind” — was only a middling success. Then, in November 2015, Stapleton and Justin Timberlake sang it together at the CMA Awards. It was a watershed moment for Stapleton, for Nashville, and for the song itself.

“The performances up until Chris played were pretty good,” Dillon says. “But, man, when they played that song, the audience went crazy and it changed the whole tone of the show. I’m sitting there thinking to myself, ‘How in the hell do you follow something like that?’”

Thanks to that unexpected performance, Stapleton’s recording blasted off, topping the country charts and introducing his version to the likes of León. “It has lot in common with a lot of Mexican music,” says León. “We actually compare women to liquor or tequila, in our case. It’s an international language.”

After he identified “Tennessee Whiskey,” T-Pain says he considered incorporating it into one of his own tracks. “I was initially looking it up to sample it to turn into a new song,” he admits, “but it was just too great to mess with.” Instead, he cut a faithful version for last year’s remakes album On Top of the Covers. Says Stapleton of the first time he heard T-Pain’s rendition, “I was like, ‘Wow, man, he can really, really throw down.’”

But what is it about that song that transcends genres? The man responsible for its revival demurs. “I don’t pretend to know how to explain magic or how to use it,” Stapleton says. León, meanwhile, calls it “that missing connection with our Mexican music and American folk.”

For his part, Dillon thinks the song’s basic structure and melody explain all. “It’s a really simple song,” he says. “It’s just saying, ‘You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey.’ It’s not ‘Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.’ I saw a guy and his daughter in their car on YouTube, and he’s driving her to school and the song comes on the radio and he’s singing on top of it. He did a fantastic version. They ought to put that out, too.”

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What no one, the 68-year-old Dillon especially, doubts are the financial rewards of such a resurrection. “I was good for retirement, but that song’s put me in a real nice position,” he says. “I’d still send a song to George [Strait]. But I’ll take a Chris Stapleton cut any day of the week.”

[Additional reporting by Joseph Hudak]

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