Matt Stell scored a slam dunk this year with “Prayed for You,” a love song that spent two weeks at No. 1 at Billboard’s country airplay chart. The Arkansas native spoke with CMT Hot 20 Countdown correspondent Ashley ShahAhmadi about his breakout success.
Editor’s Note: Matt Stell appears this weekend on CMT Hot 20 Countdown, which airs 9/8c on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
CMT: You had an unconventional start, I guess you could say, to get to where you are. Can you explain how you got to Nashville?
M: Yeah. I feel like everybody’s story is a little bit different, but mine’s definitely got some twists and turns. It really started when I was playing basketball in college [at Drury College in Springfield, Missouri]. As you probably know, it’s a winter sport. So you’re on campus the whole winter break. I was tired of playing PlayStation with my teammates.
So my mom got me this guitar when I was 12 and I asked her to bring it up to a home game. I sat in front of my computer screen in the dorm room, learning how to play off of tab websites, old country songs and blues songs and whatever. Southern rock, bluegrass, whatever you play on acoustic guitar. By the time I could play four chords, I started writing songs and eventually that got us here.
You played basketball when you were younger, then you got a scholarship to play?
I did. My first dream was to play basketball. Of course, every kid wants to be in the league. I remember very distinctly my between my freshman and sophomore year in college, I was playing a Pro-Am week in Little Rock. I played against Joe Johnson and he euthanized that dream for me. I knew where the ceiling was for me. It was not playing NBA basketball, but I still love it. I still love to play. But the transition into music was a great one for me, for sure.
You picked up the guitar in college, but then you also did premed. You got accepted to Harvard. Can you talk about how that came about?
Yeah, that’s another chapter. I moved to Nashville to write songs. My plan was I wanted to write songs for other artists and make my own little weird records. So I moved here and the wheels turned slow and you never know where you are in the process. I got to thinking after a medical mission trip that I took with my fiancée that maybe I was going to do something else. Maybe I was going to be a physician.
So I applied to a pre-medical program in the Northeast and got in. I was probably a couple weeks away from moving up there before I got the opportunity to write songs here in Nashville. And that turned into releasing some music and that turned into writing “Prayed for You” and got the ball rolling there.
Can you think back to how that felt, making that decision, and how timing is everything?
It really is. I had a great opportunity to follow that passion of being a doctor. But to me, it was always going to be plan B because I knew what I wanted to do. As soon as I got the opportunity, it really wasn’t a decision that I had to make because I would have felt like I was quitting music to do something else, as opposed to finishing what I started if I didn’t take the opportunity to write songs here in town. So that was my thought process there. That was what kept me in town. With a lot of luck and a lot of great people around me, we feel like I made the right decision.
When did you realize that you loved music?
Looking back, I guess I always had a passion for music. I just assumed everybody loved music the way that I did. I found out by listening and playing music, and how much it affected me, that this is something I wanted to be a part of. So I started playing in college and then I started playing out in bars during the season. One of the bars ran a radio ad for the show and used my name. One of the boosters called my coach and basically said, “Hey, did you know Matt was doing this?”
I was told I would not be doing that anymore, which in hindsight, I understand. But I was too far gone at that point. I had to do it. So I started playing under a pseudonym, Paul Wayne Walker, which was an amalgam of a singer-songwriter I liked and my mom’s maiden name. We did that for a while until we could play it in the sunlight.
Would you say basketball has helped you in music?
A hundred percent. Chasing a dream and knowing the work it takes and knowing how precious opportunities are when you get them — you’ve got to really try to capitalize on those. Also you’re part of a team working together for a goal. Understanding roles. Understanding how important getting along and respect is for people. Dealing with people. I really see everything you do in athletic lens because of being around it so much.
What was it about “Prayed for You” that resonates with people?
That’s a great question. We sat down to write a song about a character that’s a lot like me, that is a lot luckier than he deserves in a lot of different ways — in relationships, but also I get to live a dream, basically. The song is really about persevering long enough for good things to happen.
Speaking for me, what catches me about the song is, I don’t know that I feel like I necessarily deserve all the good fortune that I’ve had, especially recently. It’s the idea of persevering and having faith that good things can maybe happen if you put the work in. It seems to be something that people can identify with.
Do you remember the first time you heard it on the radio?
Yeah. The first time I heard it, I’d heard it on the radio through social media somebody posted, or on the radio here in town, I’d heard it. But the time that really sticks out to me was earlier this year. I was in Las Vegas. I had a couple of days off on the West Coast, so I went to Las Vegas to play golf and go to NBA Summer League. I got in an Uber and the song was playing. I sat next to a lady and I said, “Ma’am, that’s me.” She didn’t believe me initially. I was like, “No, really, that’s me on the radio!” That’s the first time this has happened.
What’s that like when you see people singing the lyrics back to you?
It’s incredible. It really is. To go places I’ve never been before and see people singing the songs or seeing the backs of iPhones when people are up their taping the set is pretty surreal. There’s a lot of times I can hear the people singing it back to me on stage. I mean, it’s why you do it. Nothing makes me feel the way my favorite songs do. The fact that this song is resonating with people the way it is, it’s the reason I wanted to do music in the first place. So that’s really the moment. That’s the payoff right there.