Why Sam Hunt Is Good For Country Music

A controversial star pushes the boundaries of country—and some people’s tolerance. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

November 23, 2014

In his column, Another Country, Duncan Cooper showcases country, folk and bluegrass music that's so often unsung around these parts, with an emphasis on new approaches to old American classics.

Sam Hunt's debut album, Montevallo, debuted at #1 on the country charts last month despite—or, rather, owing to—one of the more blatant hodgepodges of musical styles that chart has ever seen. The first song opens with a blue-eyed, speak-sung rap. Track two's half drum machine. Three swarms with turntable scratches. The bass drops on four are straight-up EDM. Imagine John Mayer, Usher, and Uncle Kracker trying to walk into a bar, but the bouncer telling them Sam Hunt has made them all redundant.

Hunt grew up in Georgia and played quarterback at the University of Alabama, Birmingham; he bleeds red, white, and blue. That feels important, considering the European origins of many of country music's more shocking (and shockingly profitable) crossovers. Twenty years ago it was "Cotton Eye Joe," the Swedish novelty act Rednex's unholy ur-hybrid of house and country. In 2012, when Taylor Swift was ready to drop her first drop, with "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," she did so with the Swedish producers Shellback and Max Martin; the scissors that cut her career's umbilical cord were manufactured in Stockholm. Last year, Avicii donned cowboy boots for "Wake Me Up" and sold gobs: 4 million copies in the U.S., making it one of the best-selling, longest-charting dance songs that the States have ever seen. In that song's wake, there was actually a funny Swedish web series satirizing the immoral act of merging genres. "House music and country music just fornicated and made a magic baby," a fictional DJ named Vincent Deuce—pronounced douche—tells a radio host in one episode. "It's called supercountry."

Sam Hunt makes supercountry in the best sense of the word. As he explains it, over the phone from his adopted home in Nashville, that's partly because he came to music almost by accident, picking up the guitar after graduating high school, back when he still had his heart set on a professional football career. "I think it made me more adventurous just because I was more naïve," he says. "I didn't know that I wasn't necessarily supposed to sound like this, or sound like that." The first songs he learned to play were country songs, "cause I grew up listening to country," but he was soon incorporating other styles. "I've always been drawn to—I don't even know what to call it—the sort of soulful element that can be found a lot in the South, whether it be in gospel music, blues music, R&B music, even some hip-hop stuff," he says. "Sonically, that's just what turned me on. When I started writing, I just sang and played naturally what came out, and that happened to fall outside of the traditional box that was considered country music."

Still, it was decidedly within country that he began his career—as a songwriter, no less, penning songs for Kenny Chesney ("Come Over"), Keith Urban ("Cop Car"), and Billy Currington ("We Are Tonight"). I love this detail about Hunt. Depending on your preferred stereotypes, you can see his football past as a sign of either lunkheadness or born-leadership; both of those opposite interpretations yield their own, opposite takes on his music's genre-blindness: he's either mindlessly following artless label executives or boldly paving his own way. But having the bonafides of being a successful songwriter—to be the brains behind an operation and not just stand 6'4" with a pretty smile; to be an artist and not simply an entertainer—it really tips the scales toward that second, more generous characterization of him, whatever you think of his music.

In Hunt's mind, the pop, R&B, and hip-hop elements in his music function like gateway drugs. "When folks who would have never really considered listening to country music hear it," he says, "they say, 'Well, wait a minute now, I kinda like this. Who says that there may not be anything for me in country music?'" Funny enough, this same line of argument was employed to the exact opposite effect by Sturgill Simpson, a more traditional-sounding artist, in an interview with FADER earlier this year. You go to the Opry and it's this longstanding tradition, but I looked out at the crowd and it's just this ocean of blue hair," Simpson said. "The kids today, I hear this all the time: 'Man, I fucking hate country music, but I love what you're doing.' That says to me they've never heard country music, and if they did, they'd love it."

I don't think either of them are wrong. Defining a genre isn't like defining a haiku; the rules change—acoustic gave way to electric—and they are clearly subjective. But for the sake of argument, let's say Sam Hunt's music is definitively something else. What, then, does it mean for his music to top the country charts? It's easy to imagine that Sam Hunt sells more, streams more, and gets more radio play than, say, Sturgill Simpson simply because more people want to hear Hunt's music. But the music business is not a democracy. Hunt's label, MCA Nashville, and their big money promotion machine helped him win a slot as a featured artist on VEVO LIFT (sponsored by McDonald's) and got his album's lead single, "Leave the Night On," selected for Clear Channel and iHeartRadio's guaranteed airplay program, On the Verge, which mandates plays on each of the company's 840 stations for a span of six weeks—reaching an audience of over 240 million. Large corporations have seen reason to give supercountry a boost, and in doing so, have implicitly crowded out more traditional styles that might've been promoted instead, derailing hypothetical futures where roots-minded artists might, with equal exposure, attain equal audiences.

I think being deprived of that hypothetical future is what makes artists like Sam Hunt seem so threatening to critics like Trigger, the firebrand behind the tradition-minded blog Saving Country Music. "Sam Hunt and Montevallo symbolize nothing less than a dangerous, bordering on cataclysmic paradigm for country music where the genre could lose its identity long-term, rendering its autonomy and the entire meaning of 'country' inert," Trigger wrote recently. "Nice guy and good songs or not, Sam Hunt isn't stretching the 'country' term, he is a downright attacking it, and represents a fulfillment of the mono-genre that should be roundly rejected by country music or face potentially dire long-term consequences." I asked Hunt how he feels about reviews like that. He said, "My intention was not to try to convince any skeptics that my music was country. It's hard to understand everybody's definition of what country music is, and mine may not fit the definition of my critics, so it's kind of pointless for me to get involved in an argument where we just have different ideas about what country music is. In an argument like that, I think two people can be right."

"From my standpoint," Hunt continues, "country music has evolved for a long time, and what we call country now sounds different from what we called country 10 years ago, 15, 20. And what we called country then sounds a lot different than 20, 30 years before that." Someone like Kacey Musgraves—with whom Hunt has shared a support staff, with their mutual cowriters Josh Osborne and Shane—found success by keeping a traditional sound but working in modern lyrics; Hunt sees his approach as the flip-side. Setting his nouveau instrumentation aside—which is a pretty substantial thing to set aside for country music—he believes his songwriting is consistent with the genre's history. "Just because my sound doesn't sound like the people who have come before me doesn't mean I'm not educated and not appreciative and respectful toward all of those artists," he says. "The devices that I've used in my songwriting are traditional. As long as we're singing about a country lifestyle, and as long as there is truth in the lyrics, storytelling, and the visual images that have always shown up in country—for me that's what keeps it country."

Songs like the delightfully sunny "Raised on It" proceed like best-case-scenario Instagram reels of rural summers—Duckin' from your ex at the four-way stop… Trunk music and headlight fights/ Dodging the smoke from a riverbank fire. The video is illustrative, snapshotting hunting, dirt bikes, and tailgates. You'd be hard-pressed to locate anything exclusively country in the lyrics to "House Party," the song with all the DJ drops, but there are multiple tracks on Montevallo about getting cheated on, and I don't know what's more country than that. But in our conversation, after he was done defending his integrity as a country artist, Hunt seemed ultimately unconcerned with any genre. "When you're making music," he says, "you hope that the listener doesn't have any preconceived notions about you and what you do, or the style of music, or the genre of music, or anything. You hope that they just clear their mind, put the music on, listen to it with an open mind, and if they feel something and it feels good and they find pleasure in that, then they do it again because it's a good thing. That's what music does. We should not put anything, any obstacles, between us and our enjoyment of good music."

"It's pointless for me to get involved in an argument where we just have different ideas about what country music is. I think two people can be right."—Sam Hunt

My favorite Sam Hunt songs—"House Party," "Raised on It," "Leave the Night On"—do feel welcoming. It seems hyperbolic but maybe also true when I think: Sam Hunt's lyrics are about being open to other people, and his style-hopping instrumentation is about being open to other people, too. An often unstated fact about country music, in discussions about how to define the genre, is that from its outset country has been nearly exclusively concerned the experience of being white in America. Could the mono-genre actually be more inclusive? Or is it the opposite, and the mono-genre is an even greater whitening, a land grab for R&B? Maybe it's their matching undercuts, but sometimes Hunt reminds me of Macklemore. Or better yet, he often calls to mind one of my favorite supercountry crossovers, Nelly and Tim McGraw's 2004 black-and-white-are-not-so-different single "Over and Over"—except Hunt's doing both parts.

I tie myself in knots thinking about this stuff partly because I don't have a precise enough definition of country music to encompass everything I like while also keeping things out. (I don't think I'm the only one: Waylon Jennings once said, "Country music isn't a guitar, it isn't a banjo, it isn't a melody, it isn't a lyric. It's a feeling." Now try defining a feeling; subjectivity seems the point.) But I do feel confident that the success of Sam Hunt and the growth of supercountry won't eliminate the style of country that came before them. Instead, traditional minded country seems to be thriving alongside. Look no further than the archives of this very column! As Sturgill Simpson and Sam Hunt each offer alternatives to the other guy, their mutual existences only make their respective brands stronger—it's something to rally against. Or, for someone like me, who loves both of them, it's like flipping a coin with two winning sides.

Photos courtesy MCA Nashville.

From The Collection:

Another Country
Why Sam Hunt Is Good For Country Music