Sam Hunt was a day away from releasing his new song “Sinning With You” when things went sideways. On November 21st, the country singer was arrested in Nashville for driving under the influence and having an open container after he was observed driving his SUV in the oncoming lane. Hunt released a statement saying he made a “poor and selfish decision,” and “Sinning With You,” originally slated for November 22nd, was bumped to 2020.
Today, the song — a rumination on how one’s faith can change over time — finally arrives. “It’s a metaphor for a small town guy who was raised with traditional values, a lot of those rooted in church and faith,” Hunt told Rolling Stone in an interview conducted in Nashville a few days before the DUI arrest. Hunt, through a rep, declined to offer further comment.
“Most of the value systems that I grew up around are rooted in religion and church,” says Hunt, who was raised in Cedarville, Georgia. His wife, Hannah Lee Fowler, is the daughter of a pastor. “You start to read books and talk to people who grew up in different backgrounds, and you try to collect that knowledge and find some meaning, some truth. It speaks to the broader pursuit of truth and understanding, in terms of how you are supposed to live your life.”
Seated in producer and co-writer Zach Crowell’s basement studio in West Nashville, Hunt is just blocks away from where he once lived. Recently, he and his wife moved to a small cabin far outside of town, where their dog can bark as much as she wants without annoying the neighbors.
“I had been wanting to get a little bit further out of Nashville,” he says, leaning forward on a leather couch with his elbows on his knees, dressed in head-to-toe black. “But maybe four or five years from now.”
Hunt may have not expected to put so much distance between himself and Music Row so soon, but it’s a fitting outcome for one of country’s biggest and most influential artists — one who also hasn’t released an album since his 2014 debut, Montevallo. While peers like Thomas Rhett are living out their entire lives (wives, kids, marriage) on social media, Hunt is, in some ways, the genre’s least accessible mainstream star. You won’t find him on superfluous red carpets or documenting his morning at the gym on Instagram stories. He’s put out one record in a period where others might have made two or three, mostly because he’s been taking a hard look at what role he wanted to play in the future of genre. Or if he wanted to play a role at all.
“It was a crazy time, in the political world,” he says of the post-Montevallo climate. “All the bumps in the road as we progress as a society. I needed to figure out what part I was going to play in all that, and how I wanted to go about it. Is music the right direction? I had to sit and think about those things, because the world tells you that if you have this opportunity to make music and be on the radio and be rich and famous, you should do that. Because people would kill to. But that’s not enough of a reason. I wanted a deeper understanding of what I was doing, and why.”
There was an internal battle too, between commercial success and a draw to singer-songwriters like Tyler Childers and Sturgill Simpson. He toyed for a while with the idea of releasing something more traditional, but ultimately felt that it had to be an “all or nothing thing.” Instead, he looked back at his catalog and remembered how songs like “House Party” and “Body Like a Back Road” riled up his live audience and encouraged singalongs. “Kinfolks,” his last release, did likewise.
“Sinning With You,” however, is a left turn from the easy radio candy of “Kinfolks.” “Raised in the first pew/Praises for Yeshua/Case of a small town repression,” Hunt sings, his raw vocals on display alongside a simple guitar vamp. “Your body was baptized/So disenfranchised/I was your favorite confession.”
Though it’s pulled from the personal, he hopes the song will resonate in a much more broad sense to anyone who has struggled with their faith, particularly members of the LGBTQ community. “100%,” he says, with zero hesitation when asked if the song might have a particularly potent interpretation for gay couples. “You hope that we can evolve out of some of the naiveté that may or may not have been necessarily rooted in right or wrong, but more tradition that’s been passed down. I think it’s important we think about these things and don’t accept rules because they are rules. We should try to understand the ‘whys’ behind the things we do, and the moral structure we apply to our lives. It takes some living and learning, but I’m always in pursuit of that.”
Hunt is still very much a man of faith, spending time over the past few years on mission trips with Fowler. But in a time where a certain breed of country worship music is experiencing a resurgence in popularity — Matt Stell’s “Pray for You,” Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country” — and offering unquestioned devotion, “Sinning With You” is a way to say that taking anything at face value, particularly the moral code dictated by religion, is not always the most righteous path.
“I hope my parents filtered out some of that and hopefully I can filter out some of what they got wrong,” he says. “And when I have kids I’m sure I’ll take on some of their biases that weren’t necessarily pure, and my kids can purify that even more and continue to evolve.”