Originally published in the June 15, 2015 issue of Nash Country Weekly magazine.
When Sam Hunt takes the stage at LP Field on June 11, his CMA Music Festival audience will be a little bit bigger than last year’s—actually, it’ll be nearly 250 times bigger. In 2014, he played a free midnight gig at the cramped Silver Dollar Saloon (max capacity: 250) in downtown Nashville after the stadium lights had clunked off, signaling the end of the day’s official events. But despite his relative obscurity back then, a crowd of heat-exhausted country music fans showed up for his after-hours set.
“Last year we were brand-new and didn’t think a lot of people knew who we were,” Sam tells Nash Country Weekly in his thick Georgia drawl. “That’s the good thing about CMA Fest: the people who come to town are the fans who know everybody who’s out and who the up-and-coming artists are.”
Over the past year, Sam has transformed from that buzzy on-the-rise artist into a certified star straddling both country and pop radio—as well as a dizzying array of other genres. Last October, he released his debut album, Montevallo, which went No. 1 and has so far produced two hit singles: the slick
late-night jam “Leave the Night On,” followed by the slower, darker “Take Your Time.” (He’s the first artist to arrive with back-to-back No. 1 singles since 2012.) Capitalizing on that momentum, he sold out his first-ever headlining tour within minutes, and he was a Best New Artist nominee at the Academy of Country Music Awards in April. When he visited Nash Country Weekly to talk about his latest single, “House Party,” he was in between stops on Lady Antebellum’s Wheels Up Tour, where he’s sharing opener duties with Hunter Hayes.
None of that, though, is how Sam gauges his own success.
“I sense how it’s growing based off how many people come out to the shows, how many songs they know that they’re singing back,” Sam says. “And it’s cool to see within just two or three months of the record coming out, people singing the bridge of track nine, word for word. You’ve had to live with the record and listen to it multiple times to know those lyrics.”
For the uninitiated, the lines he’s referencing are, Mama’s prayers and Daddy’s speech / Front porch philosophies / A little too young and dumb to see /
Just what it all meant to me. Sam’s earliest fans have known those lyrics long before they were able to download Montevallo. They’re from the song “Raised on It,” an homage to down-home, back-roads living that Sam released independently—appropriately via mixtape—before signing with MCA Nashville.
“We kind of had this underground thing going on for a little while that really helped,” Sam explains. “I feel like people were really proud to share our music with other people, and I think that’s important.”
After all, it was through the sharing of music that Sam developed his own musical style. On Montevallo, Sam takes country’s most basic ingredient—sentiments about growing up and experiencing life in the South—and filters it through all the genres he’s been exposed to over the past 30 years. There’s the ’90s country that was inescapable in his rural hometown of Cedartown, Ga., the soul and Americana influences from his tight-knit circle of family and friends, and eventually the rap and hip-hop from his football teammates at University of Alabama at Birmingham. Somewhere along the way, EDM and mainstream pop also wafted in. It’s a truly fascinating phenomenon and you might need to listen to Montevallo a few times to fully process—and appreciate—what’s going on. There’s a bass line inspired by R&B’s Ginuwine in the chorus of “Break Up in a Small Town,” for example, and the album closer, “Speakers,” is a John Mayer–like recollection of sexy times (in a truck, of course). The result is unexpected enough to be refreshing, safe enough to be radio-friendly—and exactly why Sam continues to score with listeners and critics alike. Well . . . at least most of them (see sidebar, page 44).
Sam Hunt is the real-life version of the film industry’s dream-guy stereotype: handsome (note the chiseled jaw), thoughtful and creative (he was a philosophy major), popular (yet in a nonthreatening way), athletic (the collegiate football thing), modest (“I’m not that great of a guitar player”). He even took his mother as his date to the ACMs. With that kind of persona, and the kinds of fans it attracts, he easily could’ve taken the oft-traveled route of his country peers: stand there and look good; let other people do the songwriting for you.
Instead, he’s established himself as not just one of country’s most innovative new artists but one who actually writes his own stuff. That skill is actually how he got his start in the industry, after graduating from UAB and facing two very different career routes: pro football or country music. He chose the latter, moved to Nashville and eventually found serious success by penning hits for Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban. In songs like “Cop Car,” you can see his signature brand of storytelling beginning to form: it’s about taking a specific personal experience and churning out a song that’s relatable, all while evading the standard country clichés. (“Cop Car” celebrates the freedom in a woman’s blue eyes rather than her tanned legs.) His success as a writer prompted another internal debate—whether to make the leap and record his own music.
“Fortunately, I was able to have enough success to create that debate,” Sam says. “But I didn’t know how long it would last because songwriting is so finicky—you could get a couple cuts one year and then you might wait 10, 15, 20 years before it happens [again], if at all. I just knew as an artist I could put out more songs.”
Shortly after last year’s CMA Fest, he released “Leave the Night On,” which quickly became one of the summer’s biggest country hits. He says the subsequent single, “Take Your Time,” is “just a song about a guy talking to a girl, and that happens all the time, everywhere.” What makes it stand out is the vocal style featured prominently throughout the track. It’s been dubbed “sing-talking,” and it’s not rapping, not freestyling—it’s exactly what it sounds like. Sam launches into the track with a two-verse spoken soliloquy to a girl who caught his eye, then rides into the melodic chorus. (The song was paired with a Tim Mattia–
directed video that departs from the song’s guy-meets-gal story line and instead explores a relationship marred by domestic abuse.) Sam’s new single, “House Party,” which dropped last month, is a return to the lighthearted, more straightforward singsongy fare.
“When I was writing [Montevallo] I never really played live much, so my natural tendency is to sit down and write ballads and slower songs,” Sam says. “But I’ve realized the value of having fun, happy, up-tempo songs when I play live.”
As does his audience: whenever he plays “House Party,” the crowd erupts into its own little singalong soiree—and Sam sometimes jumps into the crowd to join them.
The day after his Nash Country Weekly interview, Sam hopped back onto Lady A’s Wheels Up Tour with a show at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in St. Louis. This is his most extensive tour to date, he says, and the venues are the biggest he’s ever played. (Hollywood Casino’s capacity: 20,000.) He’s treating it as a learning experience and studying every aspect of it.
“Hopefully one day we’ll be fortunate enough to go on a tour like what Lady A has on the road—it wasn’t long ago that we were in a van with a little trailer,” he says.
He’s also appreciating the even broader audience coming to the shows, which includes fans who’ve followed Lady Antebellum since 2006 and teens toting homemade Hunter Hayes posters.
“My favorite thing about the live show and the people who are coming out is that they’re not the same people,” he says. “They’re different ages, different genders and ethnicities, different backgrounds—you can just tell there are people coming together for this one cause who wouldn’t normally run into each other.”
On each stage he steps on, Sam’s set is simple: It’s just his band (guitarists Tyrone Carreker and Josh Burkett plus drummer Josh Sales) and a backdrop announcing his name in gigantic block letters. Wardrobe-wise, he rotates a few solid-color T-shirts and flat-brim hats, which is basically what he wears offstage. And when he’s not playing the guitar or borrowing Sales’ drumsticks to hammer out a few beats, he kind of just stands there—no hip shaking or other stage antics. Come to think of it, there’s no exploiting sex appeal whatsoever, anywhere in public. He’s out there specifically to make the best music he can.
“I truthfully don’t have a great interest in being the guy . . .” he begins, then trails off.
On the cover of Nash Country Weekly?
“I’m flattered and so glad to be here,” he says with a laugh, “but that wasn’t what motivated me.” CW
SIDEBAR: The Golden Touch
Before he jumped into artist territory, Sam Hunt was a successful songwriter on Music Row. Co-penning these three hits secured his spot in the industry and paved the way for his next career move.
“Come Over” Kenny Chesney
Teaming up with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne proved so successful on this 2012 smash that Sam continues to collaborate with them in any way he can. The trio wrote Sam’s first two singles from Montevallo, “Leave the Night On” and “Take Your Time,” and Shane co-produced the album.
“Cop Car” Keith Urban
Written with Zach Crowell—another co-producer on Montevallo—and Matt Jenkins, this 2014 hit is one of Keith’s most experimental in terms of subject matter, instrumentation and production. The song was so personal to Sam that he included it on his own album later that year.
“We Are Tonight” Billy Currington
Billy didn’t just record this track and take it to No. 1 last year—he named his fifth studio album after it. Sam, a big fan of Billy’s, shared writing credits with Marc Beeson and his good friend Josh Osborne.
SIDEBAR: Sam’s Sound
Much of what’s been written about Sam’s music debates its actual, well, countryness. The drum machines, the sing-talking, the overall modern sound—some critics have flat-out refused to include him in the genre in which he’s being marketed. In an interview with FADER last year, Sam defended his country integrity: “Just because my sound doesn’t sound like the people who have come before me doesn’t mean I’m not educated and not appreciative and respectful toward all of those artists,” he said. “The devices that I’ve used in my songwriting are traditional. As long as we’re singing about a country lifestyle, and as long as there is truth in the lyrics, storytelling, and the visual images that have always shown up in country—for me that’s what keeps it country.” The only thing he forgot to add is a mic drop.