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story.lead_photo.caption Center Ridge native Matt Stell, riding high on the success of his debut single, "Prayed for You," performs Friday at Stickyz Rock 'n' Roll Chicken Shack. Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Chase Lauer

Center Ridge native Matt Stell's Little Rock gig Friday will probably be pretty special, but maybe not quite as special as the one on Saturday in Nashville, Tenn.

That's when the singer-songwriter makes his Grand Ole Opry debut.

Matt Stell

8:30 p.m. Friday, Stickyz Rock ’n’ Roll Chicken Shack, 107 River Market Ave., Little Rock

Admission: $12 in advance, $15 day of show

(501) 372-7707

"It's great to come back and play what is pretty much my hometown and the next night I get to play the Opry for the first time," he says. "I'm really excited about this weekend."

The 34-year-old Stell is on a bit of a roll. His debut single, the faith-inspired "Prayed for You," which he wrote with Ash Bowers and Allison Veltz, has been streamed more than 40 million times and the video has some 4 million views on YouTube.

"I knew I was proud of the song when we wrote it," he says. "But I had no idea that that song was going to resonate with people the way it has. It's been a really fun and humbling ride so far."

The tune will be included on a soon-to-be-released EP on RECORDS/Sony Music Entertainment.

"The date is still a bit nebulous, but it looks like sometime in May," Stell says.

His path to country stardom isn't exactly typical.

Stell is a 6-foot, 7-inch-tall former Drury University basketball player with a master's degree in rhetoric from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and was accepted into Harvard University's Extension School pre-med program. He has also worked as an Uber driver, an adjunct professor at Nashville State Community College, and he sold professional audio equipment while performing anywhere that would have him -- all while honing his songwriting.

But wait. What about this medical school thing?

"I got accepted into that program after I went on a medical missions trip to Haiti," he says. "I got to see what the doctors and pharmacists were doing to improve people's lives."

It looked like inspiring work if making music didn't pan out.

"About six weeks before I had to pack up and move to Cambridge, Mass., I got a publishing deal offer here in Nashville. Then I signed a management deal and then a record deal."

So long, med school. Hello, honky-tonks.

"I felt like if I did get this opportunity in music and didn't pursue it, it would feel like I was quitting," he says. His parents were supportive, he adds.

Growing up in Center Ridge, he spent summers working with his father, Ronnie, a contractor who passed away about a year ago.

"It was small-town, rural life," Stell says. "You make your own fun in the creek or the woods, and you have some buddies and get into anything you can that doesn't lead to too much trouble."

He also spent a lot of time on the Florida Gulf Coast.

"It was quite different leaving the palm trees and coming back to the pine trees," he explains.

As a teenager, he gravitated toward singer-songwriters and country music, but was also drawn to '90s rock and hip-hop.

"The first music I learned was country and Southern rock and bluegrass," he says. "The first songs I wrote were Americana I suppose, but then you keep at it and you quit imitating folks and come up with your own voice."

So he doesn't find "Old Town Road," the country rap track by Lil Nas X that has sparked so much debate on what is and isn't country, that controversial.

"If it's a country song, great. If it's not a country song, great. Luckily, we live in a world where genres aren't as important as they once were. I don't know anyone that has one kind of music on their playlist. Everybody has rock and country butted up against rap and whatever else. I think it's a testament to how wide open music is today."

Weekend on 04/25/2019

Print Headline: Opry debut awaits Center Ridge singer after Little Rock concert


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