Why limit yourself to speeches and cocktail weenies when you can have graffiti artists and break-dancers? That’s Sam Hunt’s ethos, anyway, when it came to planning the Number One Party for “Leave the Night On,” the hit single from his October debut, Montevallo. The genre-defying star turned the usual pomp and circumstance into a full-scale preview of his upcoming Lipstick Graffiti tour, taking the stage at Nashville’s Rocketown skate park to play a five-song set. So what if the audience got high from the paint fumes? The wall art was legal, and so was the buzz.
“I think it stands out, but is also relatable,” Hunt tells Rolling Stone Country. He’s perched in a messy dressing room backstage, discussing the honored song in question, “Leave the Night On.” “If you get too niche or unique you alienate a lot of people. But you also want to do something special and rare. Hopefully this song walked that line.”
Indeed, Hunt’s all about straddling multiple worlds — from lacing synth throbs and break beats with banjo strums to filling a venue usually populated by kids with septum piercings, Vans and Hot Topic tees with clean-cut country executives. And for the Lipstick Graffiti tour, he’ll do the same. The run, which sold out in minutes, kicks off this week at the Troubadour in L.A. and hits stages, like Irving Plaza in New York City, that rarely host anything coming out of Music Row. But maybe the biggest surprise will be in his choice of covers — a predictable pick could have been Usher, whom Hunt’s openly admired, or maybe early country influences like Randy Travis. Nope. Think way less testosterone.
“We’re going to do a section where we do a medley of songs from the Nineties,” he says, “of all female artists. Reba, Trisha, Wynonna, Mariah, Whitney, Bonnie Raitt.” Carey’s “Always Be My Baby,” McEntire’s “Fancy” and Houston’s “Dance With Somebody” are amongst the picks — no-bro country, basically.
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Hunt didn’t indulge the audience to a preview of this feminine side, but he did play tracks like current single “Take Your Time” and a raucous, break-dance-accompanied version of “House Party” upon taking the stage behind a black-and-white “Sam Hunt” banner that seemed to borrow graphic design from Run-D.M.C. (which made his fitted track-pant-esque trousers all the more appropriate).
But it was on “Break Up In a Small Town” where Hunt seemed most at home, settling into the cool, near-ambient flow of the sing-talking lyrics. It was undeniably the least traditionally country moment of the set, but the one that felt the most natural — it says a lot that he’s most comfortable on the song that makes genre faithfuls squirm the most. Still, he’s not particularly concerned about the incessant chatter over which musical category he belongs in. That’s for critics and Pandora algorithms to worry about, not him.
“I think that talk is popular because it gives us a chance to debate,” he says, answering a knock at the door to retrieve his Panera lunch. “And we love to debate.”
For his follow-up to Montevallo, which just kicked Garth Brooks out of the Number One spot on the Billboard Country Albums chart, he’s in no rush to write new songs — nor is he looking to replace his team of co-writers Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally, who also produced the LP with Zach Crowell. “It’s not that I’m not not open and don’t think there aren’t other writing partners that would be fantastic,” he says, “but so much of my writing is based on relationships.”
Hunt hopes to take some time after tour to work on his second album in the fall. For now, he’s collecting pieces where they come. “I stock up on ideas or bits of lyric or melody that might work,” he says. “But I haven’t found a place on tour to sit down and focus. I’m going to approach the songwriting the same, but I obviously want to progress as a writer. I don’t want to put out the same thing over and over again.” For now, he’ll let the road — and the spirit of some famous divas — lead the way.