In 2007, the University of Alabama at Birmingham athletics department filmed a video about their doe-eyed star quarterback, a philosophy major named Sam Hunt, who sat a little awkwardly in a pair of boot-cut dad jeans and a boxy black t-shirt in the Blazers locker room. Perched among the uniforms with field-reddened cheeks, all 215 pounds and 6’3″ or so of him, Hunt strummed the gospel classic “The Unclouded Day” on his pawnshop guitar.
“Football sometimes is stressful,” a smiling Hunt says in the video, his voice thickly muddled with a Georgia accent. “Music is more of a kind of laid-back type, chilled-out kind of activity. It kind of keeps me balanced, I guess.” Snippets of him singing, with a deep, delicate country inflection laced with hints of a bluesy growl, are spliced with action shots of him throwing touchdown passes. Hunt was a starting player, known for his quick runs. “[Music’s] made me new friends, unlikely friends I might not have met,” he adds, “being a football kind of guy.”
Friends, maybe, like Keith Urban, who would later record the Hunt-penned “Cop Car,” or friends like songwriter-producer Shane McAnally, or maybe just friends like MCA Records Nashville, who signed him to his first major-label deal and released his debut LP, Montevallo, today. These weren’t exactly the type of folks someone like Hunt, growing up in a prototype of Friday Night Lights existence may have ever met, or even thought about. Hunt certainly didn’t think he would, being “a football kind of guy,” but, then again, quarterbacks aren’t always known as artistic types.
“It took me a couple years to get over the stereotype I was letting myself get caught up on, being a football player trying to start a career in music,” Hunt tells Rolling Stone Country seven years later, calling from Dallas, where he’s playing a show with Kip Moore and Charlie Worsham. He’s coming from a workout at the local gym, though he’s not always that healthy. “I did have a lot of pizza last night,” he says. Hunt doesn’t play much football these days, and he barely likes watching it on television. But he’ll play a game of hoops — he lettered in basketball in high school — to exercise that competitive spirit.
That UAB video is an essential part of understanding Sam Hunt. Not because of the football skills, or the 1900 passing yards he threw that year. It’s because the most shocking part (besides the bad denim and Drew Brees bangs) is just how country he is. Which is in stark contrast to the music he released this week.
Montevallo is not, by traditional definitions, a country album. Nor is its lead single, “Leave the Night On,” currently Number Three on the Hot Country Songs chart, a country song. But, like many things in the Hunt doctrine, it’s all about how you define things — you’d think he majored in linguistics, not philosophy, or at least pre-law.
“I do think I’m country,” he says, “but your definition of that word might be different from my definition. In my opinion, country music, the sound of country, has always evolved. But the one thing that has not changed is the story element. And I think country songs are truthful songs about life written by country people.”
Hunt now doesn’t look like a “typical” country person, or sing like one — his signature style is part Justin Timberlake, part American Apparel. But he does have those small-town origins, growing up in Cedartown, Georgia, to Allen and Joan Hunt, an insurance agent and a teacher, respectively. Hunt liked music but didn’t play it — football players didn’t do things that like. Mostly, he listened to Nineties country on the radio, but was just as enamored of Usher and Boyz II Men. At 18 he bought himself a secondhand guitar and taught himself how to play Kenny Chesney’s “What I Need to Do.” After college, Hunt was briefly a free agent for the Kansas City Chiefs, but at that point, he was more interested in songwriting than special teams. He moved to Nashville soon after.
“I was very new to songwriting, according to the Nashville paradigm,” Hunt says. This is true. Most writers have been immersed in music since their early teens if not before, maybe making it a little harder to break both rules and old habits. “I experimented and explored ways to find my own niche in Nashville, and I was having trouble with it for a while because stylistically I didn’t feel like I necessarily fit in.”
Hunt met McAnally, who would become a writing partner and eventually producer on Montevallo, early on. McAnally had recently moved to Nashville from Los Angeles and was looking for new, interesting collaborators. “When I met Shane, he was the first person that embraced the ideas and direction I wanted to go with an open mind,” he says. “We were very likeminded with how we approach songwriting.”
Calling from a retreat in Texas with his other frequent artistic cohort, Kacey Musgraves, McAnally is steadfast about Hunt’s talent. “What Sam has is a very rare thing that few artists have,” he explains, “which is that they don’t have to grow into their sound. Sometimes, people have to have a hit to find their footing. With Sam, that was decided.” McAnally recalls an early work session where Hunt came in with an idea for a loop with a more R&B flair — the song became Chesney’s “Come Over.” Also written with Josh Osborne, it went to Number One.
Hunt continued to write — “Cop Car,” for Urban, was another big success, even earning him a shout-out on American Idol from the Australian singer himself. But meanwhile, country music began to change. Hip-hop beats found their way alongside the banjo, EDM influences fuzzed out the pedal steel and bands like Florida Georgia Line took the pop-rap mash-up to new levels, for better or worse. Hunt, who had been playing with his singular sound since arriving in Nashville, felt it might be a good time to stake his own claim as an artist.
“I felt like there was a place for me within the genre,” he says, “but I don’t feel like other artists opened any doors. It was good for the direction I was going in, but I really strongly try to avoid being lumped in with any other artists. County is taking a more liberal direction as a whole, but in the progressiveness in country music, there are little subgenres of progressiveness among artists who are pushing the boundaries.”
Hunt’s crew of progressives includes McAnally and Osborne, along with the likes of Musgraves and Brandy Clark, artists who mirror him more in their general bucking of current convention than any sonic similarities. He also recruited Zach Crowell as producer, who has worked with both country and hip-hop acts. Hunt’s nervous about words like “bro country.” “I haven’t endorsed that term for my music at all,” he says skeptically, “and I don’t consider myself a bro.” The music, sometimes almost as gender-ambiguous as it is genre-ambiguous, is really anything but — these are the kind of songs that could see their remixes played in clubs. But in the West Village or San Francisco, not Nashville.
Montevallo, named for the Alabama hometown of a (possibly former) love, is as dubiously southern in title as Hunt himself. One might guess it was a city in Europe. Hunt claims he didn’t ponder it too much, but he’s also a confessed over-thinker — it’s hard not to wonder if it was more strategic than he claims, just like it’s hard not to ask why he didn’t just make a pop record influenced by country, and not the other way around. Hunt balks at that idea.
“I am from the country, and I grew up mostly influenced by country music,” he says, hitting on semantics again. “So by the definition I have, these are country songs, not pop songs. Even though there may be a pop element, pop is an ambiguous word and can mean a lot of different things. I’m not trying to become a pop artist, and I’m not trying to make sure I stay a country artist. I’m just trying to make sure I make the best music I can, according to my way.”
Country’s genre problem is far and wide. We’re already tied up in the quandary of where the line between pop and country is, or where the line between vintage Americana and country may or may not exist, or even intersect with the mainstream. Hunt would say this was an iTunes genre problem, not an artist’s problem. And sure, at first, any jaded mind might wonder if Hunt was a just a jock tapping into a marketable trend as a launching pad, Taylor Swift-style, to mainstream stardom. But go back to that UAB video, with the unfortunate jeans and gospel bellow, and it’s much more clear that Hunt lives up to his claims of a country boy set free.
It’s frustrating for McAnally. “If you’re a country singer, why are you only allowed to have country influences?” he asks, pointing out that Hunt still routinely covers Merle Haggard at shows, but “doesn’t feel saddled with conformity.” There’s certainly nothing conformist about Montevallo. Hunt’s smooth sing-talk and unusual cadence laces together songs from “Raised On It,” his original breakout hit, to “Single for the Summer” which, with its neurons flashing in the intro, seems like it could burst into an Imagine Dragons drum raid instead of landing on a sweet, midtempo verse. Hunt straddles this tension well — just when you think a song has embedded itself deeply down one divergent road, there’s a pluck of banjo to ground everything back to Cedartown.
Having broken out of the jock stereotype, Hunt’s eager to move past anything that breaks things down to their simplest bones. “I don’t like the idea that in music, clothes, taste or anything, we are limited to a certain style,” he says, “because we need to maintain an identity, maybe between some subculture group. Hopefully all those walls break down, and music is just music.”
Someday, Hunt hopes to use his platform to break down similar walls politically — though he won’t say what, he does look forward to having an active voice. “That’s not something that will ever come though the music,” he says, “but I would like to think that the influence I may have could be a platform to influence people in a positive way. But down the road. It’s important to prove you earned that open ear before you start running your mouth.”
Hunt’s all for earning his keep — just as he was earning those yards back on the football field. He doesn’t miss it, really, but he likes the competition. “I don’t get irrational about it, but I do have a deeply-rooted competitive spirit. Not necessarily towards other people, but towards any obstacle that I set for myself,” he says, ready to head to Fort Worth for the night’s show. “Not reaching my potential,” he adds seriously and steadfastly, being a football kind of guy, “I consider ‘losing.'”