For most of Sam Hunt's life, the Georgia-born country singer was better known for his arm than his voice. As a teenager in Cedartown, Georgia – the home of an adulterous sharecropper's daughter in an early Waylon Jennings murder ballad – his quarterback skills earned him a High School Heisman nomination, and when he attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he eventually won a starting job.
Before he left for college, however, Hunt stumbled upon a new passion. "I never saw myself as a musician or having any musical talent," he says between stops in his ongoing Lipstick Graffiti tour. "I was just killing time that summer, and a buddy had recently bought a guitar. I picked it up one day and on a whim thought, 'You know, I think I want to buy a guitar.'"
The next four years were devoted mostly to sports, studies (he began school as a philosophy major) and the sort of extra-curricular pursuits you'd expect of a six-foot-four varsity athlete. But any dorm-room downtime was spent mastering his new instrument. This set him apart from the rest of the team. "It was definitely different, because I didn't know anybody else who I played ball with who also played music," he says. "It took me a while to get over that."
Eventually, though, he shared a few songs with his roommates, and they encouraged him to book shows at bars around town. Less than a decade later, Hunt has become one of country music's most exciting new artists. His chart-topping debut album, Montevallo, owes as much to Drake and Adam Levine as Waylon and Willie, combining earnest storytelling with drum machine-driven pop production and R&B-influenced vocals. His touring band look like they're playing Warped Tour, and his shows include snippets of hits by R. Kelly and Kanye West. At one point, he sings over the "Triggaman" loop that rolls through much of New Orleans bounce. "Country music has always evolved," Hunt explains. "I've just stepped into that evolution – the 2015 version. I've seen it change since I moved to town."
Hunt entered Nashville shortly after graduating from Birmingham. Once again, he stood out: His late start left him exceptionally inexperienced, and his sound baffled many listeners. "People would say, 'That's not really country' or 'That doesn't really sound like what's happening on the radio now,'" he remembers. This began to change when he met Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, two of the city's most progressive (and successful) songwriters. "They really embraced and encouraged what I wanted to do. I felt like, 'Finally, maybe I do have something to offer here; maybe I do have something unique.'"
Hunt signed a publishing a deal, but he soon became frustrated by the industry's slow process for breaking new acts. Rather than wait for label support, he and a like-minded producer – local hip-hop refugee Zach Crowell – worked together to release a free mixtape, Frank Ocean-style.
"The money factor had been kind of my excuse as to why I hadn't put out any music," Hunt says. "So I just found the cheapest way to make music and get it to people, and that was via the Internet. A lot of artists from other genres were doing that at the time, it's just that country hadn't tapped into it yet."
For Crowell, it was an obvious solution: "Coming from the hip-hop world, where mixtapes are a common thing, I was just like, 'Hey, let's do this!'" Noting country's gradual embrace of laptop production, the Nashville native – who has worked with artists like Christian-rap sensation Lecrae and JellyRoll, a 450-pound local favorite – doesn't see anything unusual about his virtually unprecedented career path. "People are creating demos in their house, and that creates a demand for beats and tracks," he says. "So it was only natural for a guy like me who's efficient with that kind of thing to become relevant in songwriting rooms."
On October 3rd, 2013, Hunt posted the finished tape, Between the Pines, to his Facebook page. It received only 79 likes, but the next month, Billy Currington released his take on one of its stand-out tracks, the "freedom and fireflies" heartland fantasy "We Are Tonight," and eventually made it the most played song on country radio. By the time it reached Number One, the ex-quarterback behind it had finished Montevallo.
The recording sessions for the album lasted longer than most, partly because when Hunt is working on new music, he tries to experiment as much as possible. "I like to come up with lots of different sounds," he says. "So the final version of a song might have been 10 completely different songs before we finally got it right."
Crowell is more blunt: "He's super-duper slow," says the producer, who also sat behind the boards for the LP. "Most people try to write a song in a day, but he doesn't think that way. And when I get around him I don't think that way either."
The pair – joined by McAnally – worked most diligently on "Break Up in a Small Town," a detailed account of world-buckling anxiety that's part Pixies, part Tim McGraw and part "I Knew You Were Trouble." Crowell calls this "by far the hardest song I've ever been a part of." "It took probably 15 days to write that song, over the course of six months," he says. "There's an infinite amount of ways to describe that, so he was constantly changing lines and moving stuff around."
Hunt was building a sound that would expand the boundaries of country music, but he was also studying the rise of the sonically traditional Kacey Musgraves. "Shane McAnally played me her original demos, and I was like, 'Wow. This is really awesome,'" he says. "It was cool to watch her come up while I was planning to release a record of my own – to see that unfold was inspiring."
The way Crowell sees it, Hunt's ability to draw upon so many sources goes back to his days on the field. "He said the other day that he loves to have a team of people around him and that if you put talented people in their place, they'll do well," says Crowell. "I don't know if he's trying to run this thing like a sports team, but it makes perfect sense. He's one of the people that makes you feel like a little more talented than you are, which gives you a little more confidence to write better songs and bring better ideas."
Even Hunt, when discussing his goals and approach, can't help but pull from his past life. "You want to stand out and be unique and do something different," he says. "I always try to zig when they zag – I guess it's a football term, but it applies to a lot of different areas of life."