It’s Sam Hunt’s day off. He’s holed up in New York City preparing to cross into Canada for a show. The young star, who continues to swerve into pop crossover country, is taking a day to just exhale, while his “Body Like A Back Road” is parked at the top of the country charts (at 25 weeks, it will ultimately become the longest-running No. 1 in Billboard chart history.)
Exhaling seems counter-intuitive though in the rush-rush, look-at-me business of fame, yet the lanky Cedartown, Georgian’s path is based more on his gut than an industry standard.
Hunt put out his first set of songs, the EP X2C – with four hits preceding his album Montevallo. The full-length became 2015’s No. 1 country album, even with the duplicated songs from X2C.
So why did Hunt take a break after becoming BMI’s Writer of the Year, then send a stream of singles into the world instead of rushing out a new album?
“I never want to let it become a business,” he explains on the phone. His voice is low and deep, and his pace is slow. Having defied industry conventions, even his conversation has its own pace. Obviously, it’s working.
“I just want to make it about the music and the fans. Me taking a step back after ‘Single for the Summer,’ ‘Break Up in a Small Town,’ ‘Drinking Again’ was important. I never want celebrity to overwhelm the other parts of my life and what I do. I love music. It’s important to me, but it’s not everything to me.
“I’ve never gotten caught up in all the things people can get caught up in. (Music) is one of my passions, and how I make a living. But I never let it define me, so I can keep doing the right thing for the music.”
The right thing includes a strong wash of R&B, the fluid integration of rap and a fairly evolved romanticism. Though Hunt’s songs have some of the good-time embrace of contemporary country, the slow-talking songwriter takes his songs to deeper places and connections. Whether it’s “House Party” and the pursuer’s willingness to go to her – on her terms; or “Take Your Time,” waiting until she’s ready; or the echoing ache of “Break Up In A Small Town,” the tiny details and female-centric songs have made Hunt the breakout guy in a genre stuffed with young men on the radio.
“Music isn’t an outlet to be tough. You’re a grown man, singing a song. So, you’re vulnerable from the start,” he reasons.
“Most of my songs – for the most part – are inspired by relationships. Those emotions can put you in a pretty vulnerable spot if you’re being honest.”
Not that Hunt is a classic sensitive guy. After a distinguished high school football career, he went on to a standout career at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, being recruited by several NFL teams. Having begun writing songs – his first, “Muscadine Wine,” was about being young, in love and his grandfather making the sweet drink – he was torn between wanting to pursue this new passion and following the dream he’d trained for his entire life.
Showing the focus and commitment one would expect from a top caliber athlete, he was torn. But unlike most promising college players, Hunt had a real shot.
“There was enough interest from the NFL and the encouragement from my coaches. I thought I needed to go on, to see what would happen. I wanted to pursue music, but I couldn’t walk away from football. At that point, I had invested so much of my time and life in it, I put so much of my heart into it, I needed to finish that out.”
Reporting for rookie camp for the Kansas City Chiefs, Hunt went all in. When it became obvious he wasn’t going to get called, he explored a few other free agent opportunities and try-outs. But in the end, football wasn’t coming together. The dark haired young man wasn’t unhappy.
“When it was obvious that I wasn’t going to make it, that set me free to pursue music.
“I have a one-track mind: once I decide something, I pursue it wholeheartedly. I had my degree, but I wasn’t going to pursue that. I wanted and needed to try music. It was 2008. I moved.”
Though Hunt, whose rhymes had entertained his college buddies and made him a local reputation at school, felt he was behind the curve when he arrived in Nashville. Having dedicated his life to sports, “it felt like I didn’t fit into the musical circles. All these guys had been in bands; they’d been doing it all their life. I felt a little out of place, and had a long way to go to catch up.”
He pauses, never wanting to whine. “I was determined. And I still have that underdog mentality. Being a perfectionist, where every little detail has to be perfect, can get me into trouble. But it can also help. I have a unique way of looking at things; pushing to that, maybe it makes me different.”
Different enough Keith Urban cut the coming of age “Cop Car” and Kenny Chesney recorded the post-break-up obsessive “Come Over.” Both men had No. 1’s, and Hunt was on his way. He realizes lots of people write hits, and that’s what they do. His dream was bigger, and his need to connect drove him.
Sam Hunt’s unusual tilt – one where the man is genuinely invested in the woman – set him apart. Looking at his first hits, he recognizes the transition from an aspiring artist to a writer in control of his voice.
“Those two songs transition from a small town romantic innocent to a real grown up adult. I was back and forth between being a small town kid and maturing. So a song like ‘Come Over,’ which had a little more to it, came later. At 18, I couldn’t have written that, but ‘Cop Car’ was relatable.
“Once I’d moved to Nashville, I’d lived more life – and you have more baggage. But you put it all in songs. And ‘Come Over’ is a song I connect with as a fan: it’s that tortured, longing, turmoil sort of relationship. It’s a human emotion we all have.”
Those emotions – frustration, upset, profound sadness – aren’t typical on today’s country radio. Even rarer is Hunt’s desire to express desire in a way that celebrates the woman, draws her in. Part of it was being raised on '70s and '80s R&B, and part of it is connecting to a world where farm kids can use the internet to find music beyond the local country station.
“Growing up, I had two different groups of friends. From playing ball, I had a lot of buddies from different cultural groups – and I connected with them in a different way. Being from the South, all those styles of music sounded good to me, and I soaked them up equally.
“Kids growing up on farms now didn’t just have a few country stations to listen to. There’s so much music from the internet, on your phone. Some of my buddies wouldn’t listen to urban music. It was culturally too different, not about who they were. They were country. And it was cool, too.”
Credit: Connor Dwyer
Soaking all that up, music was music. It wasn’t about labels, but how it felt. It wasn’t about genres, but did it move him? Like Conway Twitty and Ronnie Milsap, Hunt found the motion and melodies of soul music pleasing to his ear – and the fluidity became a profound part of his music. Also hip-hop’s staccato sense of syllables as hard beats and broken sentence emphasis helped give shape to Hunt’s songs.
“I remember the first time I heard Usher,” he marvels. “I was really drawn to the stuff. The main ingredient to what I do is melody. If you think about R&B in the '80s and '90s, it’s all about that. I came up in an era where R&B music really influenced everywhere: the choruses, lots of words and images. When I was young, before I had any biases to style, that’s what caught my ear. There was certainly a cool factor to R&B music, more than country which was about home and fun and where you are.”
Hunt pauses. Laughs a little, then he offers the ultimate truth nugget. “And when you start noticing girls, and you see what they like? Well, they really like Usher.”
It explains the lyrical bent of Hunt’s music. “Getting to know (my wife) and learn her, how to talk to her was everything. We met in college; she was walking across campus with a few people and I knew one of the girls she was with. I went over and introduced myself.
“As a young boy, who’s wired completely differently, a lot goes into (communicating with girls). Women are way more complicated. A lot of that connection with her really taught me.”
That connection also played out in Hunt’s music. “Drinkin’ Again” is as naked a lost love/drown your sorrows song as country music has had since the glory days of George Jones. If the sonic resemblance isn’t clear, the details in the lyrics match classic country’s sense of picture and place. That, too, comes from an organic place.
Though much is made of Hunt’s hip-hop/soul underpinnings, an unlikely influence comes in the forms of Guy Clark, Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt. If the smooth soul and urban influences are galaxies from their brand of Texas-honed minimalism, their mark informs his emotional nakedness and vivid scenes painted.
“They were smarter,” he explains. “The imagery they used, and the visuals. “You know that song ‘Tom Ames Prayer’? When Steve Earle sings:
Well they sent the preacher down to my cell
He said the Lord is your only hope
He’s the only friend that you’re gonna have
When you hit the end of Parker’s rope
Well, I guess he coulda kept on preaching ‘til Christmas
But he turned his back on me
I put a homemade blade to that golden throat
And asked the deputy for the key
“That was just too real, and the words he picked. I can see the whole thing happening, every last detail. That stuck with me, all the little things that aren’t really obvious.”
Earle could almost make sense. The bootlegger/dope-growing anthem “Copperhead Road” is practically larger than even several genres. But Clark? Townes Van Zandt? Stripped down, organic, acoustic? Given the obvious aspects of Hunt’s music, they seem antithetical.
“Napster’d come along, and you just jump around. There was a record they all did in the round at the Bluebird. All I had was an acoustic guitar, and this was so raw. This was something I could do. … Those guys were characters. It comes through in their writing.”
It comes through in Hunt’s writing, as well. His songs hit a chord with 20-somethings everywhere, merging how they live with deeper insight into how to understand and connect with each other. And the girl who taught him so much, the one whose college loans he offers to pay in “Drinking Again” for all the songs she gave him, he got her back; they’re now married, proving a song’s inherent power.
It’s that higher musical power that – ultimately – Hunt works to honor.
“I wanted to be an artist under certain conditions. If I have to do it some other way, I’m not interested in success. I’ve been able to do things that make sense to me, that give the people the music. When people say, ‘Is this good for your career?,’ I think, ‘But is it good for the music? Is it good for the fans?'
”I started to lean on a spiritual radar I’d always had. It tells me, ‘Hey, this is right…,’ ‘This is wrong…,’ or ‘This is the thing to do.’ If a photo, or some kind of video or activity didn’t relate to the music, gave me bad vibes, I walked away. We honed those instincts pretty early on, and became pretty accurate. I became hypersensitive on a daily basis.
“A lot of times, I’d make decisions, and it would be a lot of effort to get people to understand what was in my heart. They might’ve thought I was being difficult, or arrogant or different. But I was always trying to do the right thing.
“I got some weird looks for the decisions. But that spiritual energy that I started to hone in on? When I knew something was right, I knew.”
Cover photo credit: John Shearer