By Tyler Hale
There must be something in the water in central Arkansas that is creating country music superstars. If so, Matt Stell got a big dose of it. He’s part of a wave of young Arkansans who are making it big in the contemporary country music industry.
But things easily could have gone differently for him. Growing up, Stell, who’s 6’7”, played basketball in high school at Center Ridge and also while attending Drury College in Springfield, Mo. However, he realized that he likely wouldn’t make it to the big leagues — playing against future NBA star Joe Johnson will have that effect. One winter break at college, Stell sat down at his computer and decided to teach himself how to play the guitar his mom got him when he was 12 years old.
“I was in college, and I had some spare time during winter break because I was playing basketball,” Stell says. “And classes weren’t in session, and nobody else was on campus. So I had a bunch of free time. For whatever reason, I sat down with a guitar and started learning how to play and [that] turned into wanting to write songs.”
Nashville was calling when he left college but didn’t exactly welcome him with open arms. Stell planned to write and perform once he landed in the Music City, and while he found the city creatively invigorating, it also did not present ready-made opportunities.
“[It] was a lot of playing music anywhere that would have us. Trying to scratch out a living doing that. Driving everywhere, setting up and playing, selling merch, tearing it all down and doing it again and doing that [almost] every weekend. That, sprinkled in with some odd jobs here and there, is what kept me afloat and kept me wanting to do it,” he says.
Stell had another make-it-or-break-it moment when he decided to become a doctor after a medical mission trip. He applied for a pre-medical program at Harvard University and was accepted. But fate intervened, and Stell got the opportunity to write and record several songs, including the one that changed the trajectory of his career, “Prayed for You.”
“I moved to Nashville for a purpose,” Stell says. “So I stayed here to pursue my music career.”
Released in May 2019, it was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in September, and it topped Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in October. Since the release of “Prayed for You,” Stell has appeared on the reality show “Bachelor in Paradise,” where he performed the song.
“It’s very head-spinning. The rough way to get here was really long. I was playing for 10 years or more before we put the CD out which has ‘Prayed for You’ on it. That song hit, and when it did, it changed my life in a lot of ways — right on a dime,” Stell says.
So far, the biggest highlight of his musical journey has been the chance to perform on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Stell played for the crowd at the most hallowed venue in country music in April 2019. “That’s pretty special, and I got to invite all my friends and family out there to share that moment with me. I got to step on that stage where all my heroes were,” he says.
Moving forward, Stell plans to continue writing and putting music out there. He just released a new single from his EP “Everywhere But On,” and that has him charged up. The single — which is also the title track for the EP — hit the airwaves in early December and immediately charted at No. 60 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
“We’re really excited about this second single,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written, and I’m really excited to share that with the world.”
As he prepares to head out on tour, Stell is aiming toward a bright future in the music business.