In the early 2010s, country music’s affinity for formulas had hit what sounded, to many critical listeners, like an all-time high. The ascendance of so-called “bro-country” and its attendant jacked-up trucks with beer can-filled beds and nameless, cutoff-clad female passengers seemed like the final form of the evolution of the genre’s trademark simplicity into grating, meaningless clichés.
The banality of country’s radio hits became so overwhelming that it spawned a whole subgenre of YouTube video, in which savvy critics spliced identical-sounding songs and hollow lyrics next to one another as evidence of how self-evidently dull it all was. “The formula works!” as songwriter Gregory Todd stated in his version of the video, which had six different contemporary country songs playing simultaneously — the result sounded like one seamless track. All but two of the songs he featured reached the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Country chart.
A week after Todd posted his video, though, the charts showed evidence of what would, in retrospect, be considered a sea change. Sam Hunt’s first album, Montevallo, debuted atop the Country charts the same week that his first single, “Leave The Night On,” went No. 1 on both Billboard’s Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts. Hunt’s facade — that of the young, Southern good ol’ boy looking for ladies to have some fun with — meant his explosive success was more broadly seen as an extension of bro-country’s overpowering machismo, rather than a reaction to it. But the songs — vibrant but gentle, distinct but endearing and, more than anything else, instantly memorable — proved otherwise.
“Leave The Night On” shimmers from its opening chords, without a trace of the overwrought, performative twang of its contemporaries. “They roll the sidewalks in this town all up after the sun goes down,” Hunt croons in his irresistible tenor — a first line whose simple, pretty metaphor effectively signals that yes, something completely different is happening here. If there are some familiar tropes — Hunt’s heroine is “killin’” in her Levi’s, and they find themselves on a “road with no name” — they are presented with such casually original flair and electric inspiration, as to seem new once again, country music’s most timeless trick. The track, to borrow Hunt’s simile, buzzes like a street light, combining effortless poetry with summery, bright guitars. While Hunt’s success as a songwriter proved that his lyrics more than stand on their own, “Leave The Night On” showed right out of the gate that they were so much more powerful in tandem with Hunt’s intuitive delivery and light production — powerful enough, it turned out, to spark a movement in country music.
Though Hunt, as self-effacing as Nashville’s unwritten rules mandate, probably wouldn’t agree with that statement, by 2013 he was at least beginning to grow impatient with Music City’s hierarchy. “I had come to town [in 2008] with my hat in my hand, and I was looking to become educated on how this world works,” he told The Washington Post. “But then I realized that maybe there wasn’t a paradigm you had to stick to. I started to question things.” Frustrated by how long it was taking to get started as a solo artist, Hunt did what any child of the hip-hop era would: he released his own music for free on his website as an “acoustic mixtape” called Between The Pines.
That phrase, though not completely unprecedented, helps explain the conceptual marriage that made him stand out. “Acoustic” bears the weight of the so-called “country” portion of Hunt’s influences, and “mixtape” is, obviously, a term and concept most commonly found in hip-hop. That presentation, along with the fact that the music was free (“Making the music accessible, especially in hip-hop, they do a great job,” he told Buzzfeed.) and his flat-brim snapbacks, in lieu of a cowboy hat or baseball cap, clued those early listeners in to the fact that this was not just another Music Row-bred country record.
Unlike so many other self-conscious rap/country hybrids, however, Hunt’s sound was neither forced nor redundant; instead, the foundation of his music is informed by pop, R&B and rap as much as it is country classics. “Come Over,” Sam Hunt’s first No. 1 song as a writer, isn’t complicated. Four chords of finger-picked guitar back a lament (the truth, as it were) about clinging to the messy end of a relationship — as classic a country ballad recipe as exists, just another appealing portrait of everyday tragedy.
Its strengths, then, are necessarily subtle: the empty spaces between each urgently plucked note, for example, which seem to echo a ceiling fan’s monotonous spin — the same fan the song’s protagonist watches from one half of an otherwise empty bed. Or the quick, natural vibrato Hunt uses when singing lines so conversational they could easily be pulled from some (perhaps his own) late night texts:
You don’t have to stay forever
But the plainspoken country poetry of “Come Over” is made new by the lightest touch of R&B — not as an afterthought or embellishment, but within the very structure of the song. Its four-chord finger-picked riff is repetitive and groovy enough to mimic a loop; the emphasis in Hunt’s phrasing owes more to Usher than Johnny Cash. As a result, the seam between Hunt’s allegedly disparate influences is undetectable. In its place is straightforward, utterly irresistible pop music.
Hunt has insisted over and over that the reason his influences sound so organic together is because of his sincere attachment to both hip-hop and R&B, and country. Some of that comes from what was popular where he grew up, in Cedartown, Georgia, and some comes from sports, his first love. Hunt was a star quarterback — a dyed-in-the-wool jock — who just happened to pick up a guitar on his way to play football at Middle Tennessee State University and start teaching himself to play.
“On my teams, as a guy who grew up hunting and fishing, I was in the minority in terms of music and lifestyle,” he told Billboard, coyly alluding to the fact that, especially at the college level, most football players are Black. “I became good friends with people who listened to R&B; and rap. But it wasn’t just an issue of being around it — I was naturally drawn to it, right off the bat.” His ability to create something genuinely different, to merge those influences in a new way, was obvious almost immediately to both Hunt and his early collaborators. “I didn't know if what I do really fit into the box of country music,” he told The Birmingham News back in 2012, when he was still “former UAB quarterback.” “But the label 'country music' has such broad boundaries. It's still stories about life but, musically, people are exploring a little bit.”
“Sometimes, people have to have a hit to find their footing,” Shane McAnally told Billboard. “But with Sam, that was decided.”
Hunt’s certainty and vision bred Montevallo, for which he paired then-mostly hip-hop producer Zach Crowell, who was responsible for Between The Pines, with Nashville veteran McAnally. The result was an airtight collection of 10 songs tied together by down-home vignettes, production that successfully affected casualness with a pop-ready veneer and, of course, Hunt’s effortlessly charming, alternately rugged and romantic voice. Throughout most of Montevallo, recorded asides, ad-libs, background noise and barroom-sounding singalongs set the scene, giving Hunt’s upbeat songs the coziness of a college town dive bar.
Naturally, there are party songs. “Raised On It” is Hunt’s version of a boot-stomper (literally: “Breakin’ our boots in, stompin’ on the ground we grew up on,” as he sings it) — like almost all his songs, though, it has a hip-swivel-inducing groove. It is about exactly what it seems — the oft-mythologized Real Country upbringing — but in lieu of tired clichés about backroads and pickup trucks, Hunt paints evocative pictures of rural American youth. Lines about “still working on our summer feet” while running across pavement, or the “sticky quarters and pine tree scent” of the car wash stay with you, making his sentimentality sympathetic. Plus, like the rest of his more upbeat songs, its simple arrangements are fleshed out with lightly doubled vocals, handclaps and occasional whoops and conversations in the background, completing the illusion that the listener is actually around a campfire in the backwoods of Georgia with Sam Hunt.
The studio arrangement of “House Party” is a simple one: handclaps, a guitar riff earworm, a little banjo, a lot of space for his convincing innuendo to breathe (“We’ll go to town right there in your living room,” he sings with a practically audible wink). Even with his lightest, breeziest songs, as a songwriter, Hunt has the capacity to turn every contemporary country cliché on its head. His lyrics are just corny enough to feel sincere and just surprising enough to be poetic, sung with the dexterity to move from conversational talk-singing to fluid, R&B-inflected flair — and occasionally (on “Night” and “Speakers” for example) what could only be described as a technically gifted flow — with ease. “Make You Miss Me,” a brooding ballad about imagined revenge, perversely becomes a showcase for Hunt’s ear for melody; entire arenas now sing along as he accompanies himself alone on keyboard.
Much of the album is made up of seduction songs, odes to women who have about as much in common with country’s infamous anonymous girls in cut-off jeans as Hunt does with the men who sing about them. You’d have to go back to the ’70s to find a country song as genuinely sexy as “Speakers,” and “Cop Car” is in a class of its own, as far as meet-cute tracks go. Banjo meets drum machine again, but this time to quiet, intimate effect as Hunt sings coyly about getting arrested for trespassing. The story of youthful debauchery is capped off with a typically Huntian turn of phrase: “By the time they let us go, I was already gone.”
That earnest, romantic side was behind Montevallo’s most successful single, “Take Your Time.” It’s as unlikely a country hit as one could imagine, both aesthetically with its piano-driven power-balladry and Hunt’s plaintive talk-singing, and lyrically, as Hunt pleads with a woman to just maybe give him the time of day if it’s not too much of a bother. Someone like Hunt singing a song like that was Kryptonite for not just every country fan attracted to men, but every pop fan; the song reached No. 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 thanks to pop radio airplay. “Break Up in a Small Town” and “Single for the Summer” both tap rock, hip-hop and R&B influences to challenge country norms while hewing closely enough to its formulas to, in the case of “Small Town,” at least, still get prolific radio play.
Much of Montevallo was deceptive in its simplicity, hiding era-defining songwriting talent and a whole new mode of country crossover behind a seemingly easy-to-replicate formula of marrying traditional country instruments with programmed beats and slick, dynamic melodies. Its velvet revolution won Hunt years of radio dominance and anticipated a tidal wave of what’s been termed “boyfriend country” — legions of imitators who took the singer’s gently flirtatious tack and R&B influences to their cloying extremes.
Plenty in Nashville didn’t see Montevallo as a changing of the guard and, even after he’d become a country megastar, wrote him off as either a novelty, insufficiently capital-C Country or both. When confronted with resistance about his own mode of widening country music’s lens Hunt has tended to return to the root of the issue, which runs much deeper than a simple disdain for pop music in country or concern about preserving some of its imagined “authentic” past.
“Traditionally, music has been a means of separating ourselves as people from another group of people,” Hunt said in 2014. “And now, music is starting to blend in a way that doesn’t allow us to do that as much.”
Natalie Weiner is a freelance writer in Dallas covering music and sports for outlets including NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Billboard.
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