One morning last fall, Luke Laird was eating breakfast and listening to one of his favorite Apple Music playlists, Honky-Tonk Essentials. When Webb Pierce’s 1953 hit “There Stands the Glass” started playing, Laird had a strange thought.
“I was like man, ‘What if I made a beat and sample that?’” he thought to himself.
After breakfast, he recorded a crude 13-second voice memo in a Nashville parking lot, in which the hit songwriter (“Pontoon,” “Drink in My Hand”) hummed the melody of Pierce’s chorus while beatboxing a rough sketch of a beat.
That demo would soon become the blueprint for “Hard to Forget,” the new Webb Pierce-sampling song from country singer Sam Hunt, whose album Southside, the long-awaited follow-up to his 2014 debut Montevallo, is due later this spring. Hunt’s team is seriously investing in the song, filming a music video, and releasing it as Hunt’s next radio single as part of the run-up to album release.
The extensive sampling utilized on “Hard to Forget” represents a first of sorts in country music, a natural next step for a commercial genre that has been incorporating hip-hop production for the past decade-plus. While Jake Owen’s “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” interpolated fragments of John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane” and Keith Urban’s “Coming Home” incorporated the riff to Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” a mainstream country single has never quite so prominently made use of a sampled master recording as Hunt’s “Hard to Forget.”
Don’t be surprised if Hunt’s song ends up kickstarting a trend. “My guess is we’ll see more of this,” says Eric Hurt, VP of A&R for the Nashville division of the indie hip-hop label/distributor Empire. “The genre is quickly moving into a streaming age where we just need awesome songs, engaging content, and artists willing to say, ‘Why not? Let’s try it!’ My guess is country music is about to enter into a new phase of creativity, and this Sam Hunt song is a prime example.”
Laird, a self-described devotee of Nineties hip-hop who has been privately tinkering with country samples for years, hopes that’s exactly what happens. “If this becomes a trend, I’m going to be ready to go,” he says. “I haven’t been this excited about a song in a long time. It makes people turn their heads. There will be some people who hate it, too. I want to be part of songs that get a reaction, one way or the other.”
Laird has accomplished just that with “Hard to Forget,” which has earned impassioned positive and negative reviews since its release earlier this month.
Such mixed reactions extend to the family of Webb Pierce, who had not been made aware of the song’s existence until Rolling Stone Country contacted them. While Pierce’s son Webb Pierce Jr. praises the song’s ability to bring his father’s music to a commercial audience, Audra Hillis, Pierce’s grandaughter, finds the use of her father’s signature tune “jarring.”
“I grew up with that song,” says Hillis, who says she’s a fan of more traditional country sounds. “I don’t necessarily think it’s a horrible song, but the way it was cut, and the echo, everything is just really weird.”
“Hard to Forget” took shape late last fall, when Laird and fellow songwriter Ashley Gorley were at a session with Hunt. As it was winding down, Hunt asked if Laird had any any other beats to show him. On a lark, he brought out the rough iPhone voice memo of his “There Stands the Glass” idea.
Hunt was intrigued. “He was just freaked out over it,” Laird says. “Like, ‘Gosh, play it again!’” The group combined the Pierce sample with a different song, initially titled “Playing Harder to Forget,” which Hunt had been working on with Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally.
Eventually, they tweaked Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” sample with the music production software Ableton, changing the key, processing the vocals, and speeding up the tempo with co-producer Zach Crowell. “When I was making this beat,” says Laird, “part of me was like, ‘If Kanye West came across a bin of old country records, what would he do?’”
Hunt’s label MCA Nashville, which owns the master recording to “There Stands The Glass” (also MCA), did not need to clear the sample’s use with Pierce’s estate, but Pierce’s surviving relatives, which includes his 93-year-old widow Audrey Pierce, could stand to earn substantial additional royalties from “Hard to Forget,” should the song become a hit.
Despite recently earning a Number One at radio with his song “Kinfolks,” Hunt hasn’t had a bona fide blockbuster since 2017’s “Body Like a Back Road.” It remains to be seen how country radio will react to “Hard to Forget,” which opens with 18 seconds of a 67-year-old recording. A couple weeks after its release, only a handful of radio stations have the song in regular rotation.
“It has all the qualities of what I like to think are a hit song, but it was different,” says Brian Michel, program director at Denver’s KYGO, a country station that’s played the song more than any other. In its first two weeks, “Hard to Forget” received a flurry of requests from listeners in the Denver area.
“When you first hear it, with the sample, it catches you off-guard,” says Michel. “Those are the types of songs you look for throughout history.”