Photo by Chase Lauer
It’s been said numerous times over the past few years that music genres are slowly becoming a thing of the past. And while we still like to organize sounds into neat categories the best we can—rap, soul, pop, etc.—the truth is, it isn’t always easy anymore.
Of course, there’s been one glaring holdout. For the most part, it’s still business as usual in country music, where there’s been no shortage of honky tonk bros singing twangy ditties about beaches, babes and booze.
That’s starting to change thanks to the likes of Miranda Lambert, who’s perhaps more rock and roll than some contemporary rock artists; and Kacey Musgraves, whose songwriting has challenged the genre’s overwhelmingly conservative ideals with messages about equality.
Sam Hunt is pushing country’s limits by embedding elements of rap, R&B and soul into his music. But he isn’t simply another “hybrid” artist climbing up the country charts; he’s an unlikely star who got his foot in the door writing songs for Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban after a failed run at a NFL career.
“Performing wasn’t originally part of the equation for me,” he recalls, speaking on the phone while en route to a show in Kentucky. “Songwriting was one of the opportunities that came along when I moved to Nashville and that seemed like the plan for me. I had a good time writing for other artists for a few years, but I think this was just part of the evolution. Once I sort of discovered what my voice was in the songwriting realm, I figured it was a good time for me to explore.”
Unfortunately for Hunt, not everyone he encountered during his songwriting days had been open to such exploration.
“I got this sort of resistance from people I was writing with,” he reveals of his earlier pursuits. “So I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I need to consider that if I want to be successful.’ I love traditional country music, so as a songwriter, I was writing a number of songs for others that leaned more traditional. But as I started feeling drawn to a solo career, I looked at what I was writing for those guys and it didn’t feel authentic to me.”
Growing up in southern Georgia and having played football since high school, Hunt’s musical diet included a wide breadth of soul, Gospel, blues, hip-hop and R&B. “Before games and in the locker room, it was usually hip-hop. Honestly, country isn’t exactly the best hype music,” he says, laughing.
His eclectic influences are evident on songs such as “Take Your Time” and “Speakers,” in which the 30-year-old crooner effortlessly flows between singing and speaking. And while it might sound new to some longtime country fans, part of Hunt’s ongoing rise has been his appeal to non-country listeners.
Unlike some of the industry’s efforts to attract nontraditional audiences, Hunt’s material displays an organic fusion, not a contrived stunt like the aforementioned Lambert singing “All About That Bass” with Meghan Trainor at last year’s CMA Awards. Not like Nelly’s remix of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” which successfully pandered to outsiders and turned the track into a top 10 hit.
Instead, Hunt is a reflection of a new generation of music makers (and their fans) who grew up with Pearl Jam and JAY Z on the same playlist.
"Country music is in a different place now, because there are new artists coming on to the scene who are influenced by such a broad range of sounds."
“I consider myself part of the evolution of the genre, just like those artists before me,” the singer humbly suggests. “If you look back at country music, it’s always been evolving. It’s no different now. I think I’m just part of an evolution that’s been going on for a long time. But country music is in a different place now, because there are new artists coming on to the scene who are influenced by such a broad range of sounds. Years ago, it was true; a lot of kids grew up listening to country and they were loyal to country. It was only Garth or Martina or whoever. But it’s not like that now. Everyone’s playlists are more eclectic, and you’re seeing it everywhere.”
Photo courtesy artist
Hunt’s own playlist is proof of that. Only days before this conversation, he was at The 1975’s definitely-not-country show. He admits he’s “really a huge fan” of the British pop-rock outfit.
“My manager turned me on to the band about a year ago,” he says. “And not just myself but the whole band. Since we’re traveling together, their music has sort of been a soundtrack on the road. It’s one of those things where you listen to a band and you have a lot of good times together, and now that band’s music represents memories and a special time in your life. So I have that connection now.”
It’s a connection perhaps similar to what many fans have developed with Hunt, who weaves covers of Bonnie Raitt and Destiny’s Child into his shows while sporting an American Apparel look over denim and boots.
"Who knows, maybe in 10 years, we’ll live in a world where it’s not country or rock or rap music—it’s just, music.”
Hunt hopes that “maybe as country gives these different sounds a chance and opens itself up, others will pause before writing off the whole genre.” He could definitely be right, but it seems more likely that this former quarterback isn’t just a game changer for country music, he’s bigger than it.
Although he’s careful to mention that he doesn’t “feel any boundaries around the music I want to make,” he’s left the door open for the future: “If I ever did feel held back, I definitely would consider breaking out of those boundaries. I love country music and I always want to be a part of it somehow, even if that definition isn’t always the same. Who knows, maybe in 10 years, we’ll live in a world where it’s not country or rock or rap music—it’s just, music.”
Sam Hunt's tour continues this month with three dates in London before heading back to the States, where he'll be touring through September.