At first glance, Sam Hunt might seem like a fairly typical young country singer—he grew up in a small Southern town; spent his school days concentrating on sports, but feeling his attachment to music grow deeper and deeper; and came to Nashville with little idea of how the music business worked, but with big dreams.
But a closer look instantly reveals that there is nothing typical about the music that Hunt makes, nor about the way he has introduced his work to the world. In a short time and on his own terms, he has become one of Nashville’s most hotly anticipated new artists, and his debut album, Montevallo, delivers on the buzz and the promise—and then some.
The album follows Hunt’s recent four-song album preview, X2C, led by the Top Five, gold-selling track “Leave the Night On.” Of course, even though he was a recording rookie, Hunt was no stranger to the country music charts, having already written hits for the likes of Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban and Billy Currington.
Hunt grew up in rural Cedartown, Georgia. An athlete all his life, Hunt wound up playing football through college, ending his time there as starting quarterback at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Somewhere during his time at UAB, he picked up a guitar, and while learning the songs of such great singer-songwriters as Townes Van Zandt and John Prine, Hunt began putting rudimentary chords together and writing tunes of his own.
After college, the NFL had taken notice of his talents on the field and he was invited to training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs. “I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I needed to find out if I could take it all the way,” he says. “But by then I knew that if football didn’t work out, I was going to Nashville.”
Arriving in Music City, USA without a real understanding of the different paths an aspiring musician might pursue, Hunt was able to play a few of his original songs around town and was soon offered a publishing deal, enabling him to write full-time. He fell in with the songwriting community and the conventional methods of collaborating, but he knew that he was developing a sound that was slightly out of sync with the standard Nashville formulas.
“I always loved country music—I used to take the car keys from my mom and sit in our driveway listening to the car radio,” he says. “But I was also hearing a lot of other music – hip-hop and R&B. In some ways, that really gospel-based Southern R&B might be my favorite of all.”
His songs started to experiment with ways to mix more modern beats and tones with the narrative and wordplay that define the best country music. Some of the other songwriters were skeptical, but when Kenny Chesney recorded “Come Over” (written by Hunt along with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, who remain his close associates) and it became a Number One hit, he sensed that he was on to something. When the even more sonically daring “Cop Car” became a hit for Keith Urban, Hunt was convinced that he had found an exciting new direction, and began to shift his focus from being a songwriter to stepping out front as a solo artist.
“I learned a lot from working with all those amazing other writers,” he says. “I learned so many of the rules and the structures that make great songs. But I also knew that there was a way to go beyond those rules and make something that would really be unique and honest to who I am.”
Along the way, Hunt met producer Zach Crowell, who made beats for the Antioch rap crew. They holed up together at Crowell’s home studio for long hours, matching tracks to lyric ideas and developing a new way to write country songs. Once they had a big enough body of work, they borrowed another idea from outside the country genre, and released a free mixtape of acoustic songs called Between The Pines in 2013. “In hip-hop, they do a great job of making the music accessible,” he says. “When somebody’s never heard you, just give them the music and let them decide for themselves if they like it or not.”
Soon, Hunt’s songs were averaging over 300,000 streams per day on Spotify, and he won the latest cycle of Spotify’s “Emerge” program for new artists (previous winners include such notables as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Bastille). After signing with Universal/MCA Nashville, he finished polishing some of the mixtape songs and fleshing out the remainder of debut album Montevallo.
The results are a bracing mix of sounds and styles, from the aggressive dance beats of the opening “Take Your Time” to the more melodic “Make You Miss Me.” On “Break Up in a Small Town,” Hunt talk-sings the verses, an accident he and Crowell stumbled on in the studio, before unleashing an explosive chorus. With “Raised On It,” he wanted to write about his small-town upbringing with images that expanded upon the now-predictable trucks and dirt roads of countless other country songs; the results are both more specific and more universal than the standard fare.
As for the album’s title, Montevallo is the name of a small Alabama town where Hunt often retreated these past few years, to visit friends and escape from the pressures of starting a new career in Nashville. He also points out, however, that the word means “mountains and valleys” in Spanish—which, he says, “feels about right, too.” Because as his remarkable set of songs demonstrates, for Sam Hunt, contradictions are meant to be embraced, rules are meant to be broken, and creativity knows no limits.