Sam Hunt has taken more than a few knocks for his progressive approach to country music — the hybrid of synths and programmed drums, Drake-ian brooding, and sung-spoken delivery that defined his 2014 debut Montevallo. But detractors be damned, the album turned the towering Georgia native into a crossover star.
So it’s a bit of a surprise to hear Hunt begin his long-awaited follow-up Southside with an acoustic guitar and the line “I put the whiskey back in the bottle/Put the smoke back in the joint” as he tries to repair a severed relationship in the song “2016.” He delivers it with a lilting melody that’s like something out of the George Jones playbook, affirming that yes, he could be one hell of a throwback stylist if he felt so inclined.
These classic gestures are all over Southside, though Hunt thankfully has no interest in doing something so straightforward. His current single “Hard to Forget” flips a Webb Pierce vocal sample into a new iteration of country drinking song that gleefully mixes up hip-hop beats and banjo. “That Ain’t Beautiful” combines ghostly steel guitar and booming 808s, with Hunt gently expressing his concern (in a mellow drawl) for someone who’s falling into harmful patterns. “Let It Down” feels like an update on the kind of stomping Nineties tune that used to be Tim McGraw’s bread and butter, a lively mix of acoustic instruments and danceable rhythms underpinned by a skittering drum loop.
There’s always a thread of sensitivity with Hunt’s work as well — his narratives have the feel of lived experience and he addresses the women in his songs as if they’re actual humans (unlike some of his male peers). In “Sinning With You,” he and a lover shake off the dogma of their evangelical upbringing to witness the actual magic in consensual sex. “His grace and your grace felt like the same thing to me,” he concludes. “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90’s,” with its ringing mass of electric guitars, has him almost believing that he’d have no trouble moving on from a relationship if he just lived in a time without social media and smartphones to remind him of what he’s lost.
The one hard-to-overlook drawback of Southside is that a not insignificant chunk of it is old at this point. There’s the 2017 hit “Body Like a Backroad,” which is still a jam, but was released as a single more than three years ago. Even older is the late-night confessional “Drinkin’ Too Much,” which maybe doesn’t play as well in light of Hunt’s DUI arrest in November. There’s also “Downtown’s Dead,” the 2018 single that achieved a middling (for Hunt, anyway) Top 20 peak on country radio. He may not be the most prolific writer out there, sure, but it seems like those could have stayed in the past.
Because, after all, Hunt’s an innovator who has remade country in his own image and also figured out how to reclaim its past in ways that don’t sound tired or overdone. Country’s better when his eyes are fixed on the horizon, even if all he wants to do is drink away a memory.