Sam Hunt's not one to try and prove anything, and in his debut Letterman performance Monday night, he certainly wasn't trying to prove the case that he is or isn’t country — going guitar-free in a white button-down with a few lines carved into his brow, the football star turned genre-bending phenom played his newest single, "Take Your Time," with a slow swagger and coy, beat-heavy groove.
The follow up to "Leave the Night On," from his debut LP Montevallo, the mid-tempo track was released to radio this week and is even more left-of-center when it comes to any traditional Nashville sound. Laced together with his signature rapesque sing-talk, it would be hard to classify the song as anything but pure R&B pop, but Hunt thinks defining something as country is more about looking at the bones, not the flesh. The words, in Hunt's view, with their tales of small-town romance and restless courtship, are what carry more weight than twang.
"I always connected to the lyrics and stories that come out of country culture," Hunt tells Rolling Stone Country. "The lyric is precedent in that way. Some people may identify music by its sound, but for me, the lyric and the story is what roots the song in the genre."
Hunt delivered a soft performance of the tune, written with his power duo of Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, on Monday's episode of the late-night talk show as he concludes his CMT tour with Kip Moore and Charlie Worsham. In the New Year, he'll kick off his first headlining run, the Lipstick Graffiti tour, with gig at Los Angeles' legendary Troubadour theater — a wood-paneled stage that more commonly hosts rising rock bands than a solo country singer with a penchant for breakbeats and hip-hop.
"I tried to figure out where my affinity for R&B came from, and I think it started at young age," Hunt says. "I was obsessed with 'Nice and Slow' by Usher. I was too young to know what he was talking about, but the way he delivered the song — the vocals, the phrasing, I've always been drawn to the more soulful gospel music."
Montevallo is still holding strong at Number Six on the Billboard country chart, after debuting at the top when it was released in October. Hunt also recently made his Grand Old Opry debut with an ever-so-slightly more country version of "Take Your Time" on acoustic guitar.
"I don’t set out to try and be a revolution," Hunt says, "but I don’t like being boxed in."