Arkansas native Matt Stell recently accomplished more in the span of a few weeks than some artists accomplish in years.
A few weeks ago, Stell announced a new joint deal between Sony Music Nashville and Barry Weiss’ New York-based RECORDS, just days after he made his Grand Ole Opry debut on April 27, singing his breakthrough single “Prayed For You.”
His debut EP, Everywhere But On, releases May 24.
“Prayed For You,” which initially caught traction on major streaming playlists last year, has earned more than 44 million on-demand audio streams. The breakthrough hit, which he co-wrote with Wide Open Music’s Ash Bowers and Allison Veltz, was inspired by Veltz’s first meeting with the man who would become her husband.
“She had just met the guy a week before,” Stell recalls. “We took that moment in her life and infused with moments in my life and in Ash’s life and wrote it about a guy who is way luckier than he deserves. It’s about, as my dad would say, someone who can ‘hang in there like a hair on a biscuit,’ long enough for something good to happen.”
The song made its way to RECORDS’ Barry Weiss through a contact Veltz had in Los Angeles; Weiss signed Stell to RECORDS, marking its first foray into country. Keith Gale‘s Good Company was also brought in for strategic promotion duties.
In February, “Prayed For You” reached No. 36 on the Hot Country Songs chart. The song is at No. 42 on this week’s Mediabase chart and No. 39 on this week’s Country Airplay chart.
Under the new deal, Sony Music Nashville will handle marketing and radio promotion for the new single, which was re-serviced to country radio on May 6, with an official impact date of May 28.
In some ways, the whirlwind of accomplishments seems par for the course for Stell, who seems to have always been an overachiever.
He earned an athletic scholarship to Missouri’s Drury University, and nearly enrolled in a Harvard medical program before he got his first big break in music.
“I see everything through the lenses of sports. I know what it means to work hard for a chance to have success, and to work as part of a team,” says Stell. During one winter break, Stell asked his mother to bring the guitar she purchased for him when he was 12.
“I think she recognized there was a spark there, even when I didn’t,” he muses. “I sat in front of a computer screen, learning Haggard songs and Skynyrd songs. I also listened to a lot of Texas country music. I feel in love with this independent spirit of ‘write songs and get in a trailer and play them.’ It’s like rock n’ roll, but with acoustic guitars.”
He began co-writing songs and officially moved to Nashville in 2014. As with most newcomers to the Nashville scene, he found that success in the music industry rarely comes easily or quickly.
At one point he joined a medical missions trip, working with a group of doctors and pharmacists in Haiti, “usually lifting things or reaching tall things,” notes Stell, who stands at 6’ 7”. Watching as the fellow members of the group helped those with medical needs, coupled with his own struggles with building a music career, Stell nearly made a significant career change.
“I thought these people are improving people’s lives by what they know. I’m always going to play music, but I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just be the guy who always does music on the side.’”
To that end, he applied for a post-baccalaureate pre-med program through Harvard University’s extension school. However, six weeks before he was to head off to Harvard, he had life-changing meeting with writer and publisher Ash Bowers, who signed Stell to Wide Open Music, and later co-wrote “Prayed For You.”
“That was the model in the way Ash operated—sign an artist as a writer to a publisher deal, then to management and then shop them to a label.” Stell says. “He really believed in me creatively. My music sounded different; up until that point, difference was a weakness until I met Ash and then it became a strength.”
Stell’s Grand Ole Opry debut performance on April 27 was not only a testament to the power of a song, and the power of a determined artist, but the power of a supportive family. Stell made his first visit to the Grand Ole Opry with his family when he was 17; his debut performance on that stage as an artist was both the fruition of a long-held dream, and a bittersweet moment, as Stell’s father passed away just over a year ago.
“Playing that stage a couple of weeks ago, looking out and seeing where we had been sitting in the audience was special. I’m glad I only had like 10 minutes onstage because I don’t think I had many more minutes of keeping it together.”
Though Stell’s first love as a teen was sports, music was in his genes; his cousin, Hannah Blaylock, had made her own way to Nashville, briefly signing with BMLG as part of the trio Eden’s Edge.
“Hannah was great about introducing me to people when I came to town,” he recalls. “Her brother [Wesley Blaylock] is also talented, more on the indie rock scene. I remember going to see them at shows in high school and being wowed by that.”
The effort Stell has put into polishing his skill at songwriting is apparent on his upcoming seven-song EP; he wrote or co-wrote every track, including “Home In A Hometown,” which features Jimmie Allen (also managed by Bowers). Stell co-produced the project with Bowers.
Though his career effort and timing have already paid off handsomely, he’s ready for the hard work that’s yet to come.
“My family has been so supportive. I’ve worked hard enough at this to know that opportunities are rare in this business. You are lucky if you get one bite of the apple, so I owe them the best job I can do.”
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