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.”