NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Chris Stapleton and Thomas Rhett are both nominated for new artist of the year at the Country Music Association Awards, which should be read with a wink since neither is really new to country music.
Rhett, 25, just released his second album, "Tangled Up," and he was nominated for the new artist CMA at last year's show (he lost to Brett Eldredge). And Stapleton, 37, has written hits for Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan and George Strait and earned three Grammy nominations as a member of the bluegrass band, the SteelDrivers.
But they are also versatile singers and songwriters who are pushing up against country's music boundaries. Stapleton, who is also nominated for male vocalist and album of the year for his solo debut, "Traveller," will sing with Justin Timberlake and Rhett will pair up with Fall Out Boy on Wednesday's awards show.
The longtime friends, who have written songs together for both of Rhett's albums, sat down together to talk with The Associated Press about what makes them more alike than people really know. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
AP: Tell me about the first time you wrote together.
Rhett: I just remember walking in and being like, 'Man, this is so cool.' There are vintage amps everywhere. There were all of Chris' old guitars. He had whiskey that had been aged for like 90-something years.
Stapleton: I think you're exaggerating. You were like 12.
Rhett: I was 19 or 20. Dang, that was a long time ago.
AP: What do you have in common?
Stapleton: So I am 12 years older than you. There's a little bit of generational gap in terms of things that were formative musically that we probably grew up on. But it doesn't necessarily mean we can't have things that cross paths that we both like.
Rhett: We're in such a place in music that something has to be labeled. When you listen to Chris' record, you can't help to get chills. It is country to the core and it's traditional. But there is something about Chris that is untraditional. Yeah, he is playing some of the same festivals that I am playing on, but didn't you play before Wiz Khalifa?
Stapleton: Yeah, it was the Weeknd, out in Seattle.
Rhett: People would probably think, 'Man, I bet Chris despises Thomas Rhett's music.' And other people would think, 'Well, I bet Thomas Rhett is not a fan of Chris 'cause Thomas Rhett's music is not traditional.' What are you even saying?
Stapleton: I like hanging out with him. He's a good guy. I like good people.
AP: Both of you have written songs that other artists made hits out of, so did you ever wish you kept certain songs for yourself?
Rhett: Songs are like children in a way. They all need to find a home. ...My wife about ripped me in two for giving 'Round Here' away (to Florida Georgia Line) and I thought it might be cool if I had cut (Lee Brice's) 'Parking Lot Party,' but at the end of the day, I was in a certain spot and I was working with different producers and I was making an album that was where I thought I wanted to be.
Stapleton: I always feel like no song is so precious to me that I can't hand them over to somebody. I kinda miss in the old days when everybody just recorded six versions of a song. Like how many times has 'Crazy' been recorded? ...On my album, I have a song called 'Whiskey and You.' (Tim) McGraw recorded it. Several Texas acts recorded it, Julie Roberts. It's been recorded several times. Anyway, my point is I don't feel like it prevents me from ever recording it.
AP: Are writing songs like playing a role for a little while?
Rhett: I think the reason why I write so well with Chris is it's just so free. There are no limitations. We used to write some sad songs. We'd get in there and write some sad old country songs and then write a song like 'South Side.'
Stapleton: I am always interested in making myself as uncomfortable as I can. Sometimes I ask myself, 'Can I stand onstage and sing this song and sell it?' Sometimes I can't. In a room, you get to pretend a little bit and step outside of yourself. When you're writing with an artist or for an artist, you have to help them serve their vision. That's the cool part about writing songs. There are no rules.
Follow Kristin M. Hall at http://twitter.com/kmhall