Sam Hunt defined a new paradigm in country artist development since giving away his initial tracks and stealing CMT’s Next Big Country Tour as the opening act for Kip Moore and Charlie Worsham. With a supple sense of melody, highly visual lyrics and grooves that borrow from old-school R&B, Hunt placed four songs—“Leave the Night On,” “Break Up in a Small Town,” “House Party” and “Take Your Time”—at the top of the Mediabase Airplay charts, blew up streaming numbers and placed his Montevallo at the top of the year-end sales lists.

Hunt played quarterback at Alabama Birmingham and even got a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs before setting off on a course that led to a new way of doing Nashville. He released acoustic versions of the songs from Montevallo as Between the Pines to follow up that breakthrough album—plus one-off singles “Drinking Again” and this year’s summer-coming-on anthem “Body Like a Back Road.” His distinctive writing style has also seen Kenny Chesney (“Come Over”), Keith Urban (the Grammy-nominated “Cop Car”), Billy Currington (“We Are the Night”) and William Michael Morgan (“I Met a Girl”) hit #1 with his songs.

Unconventional. Soft-spoken. Earnest. In a world of look-at-me boasting, the recently married Hunt was championed by unlikely outlets Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker and NPR, as well as young people who live the songs they love. A naturally reticent guy, he recedes from the spotlight, preferring to let the music speak.

You’ve become one of the genre’s most distinctive voices. What did you think when you wrote that first song?
I didn’t have any one specific thought—about the song itself, or the process. It was more a feeling, knowing it was sure a lot more fun to do than learning the chords and lyrics of someone else’s song.

Were you surprised you wrote a song?
Before I picked up a guitar, I wrote things down—not in a journal, but just these free-verse thoughts and ideas. I liked being creative, capturing these thoughts and perspectives. Noodling though it was, it was a little more than just random words.

So what made you do it?
When I sat down to write, it was to entertain my buddies; little parodies that weren’t meant to be taken seriously, just to make people laugh. I didn’t know if they were anything, but I got a good reaction, I guess, and I kept doing it. That first song, I didn’t really know how people would react. I played it for some roommates and buddies, and they said, “Hey, play that again.” Or when people would come over, they’d say, “Do that one.” And people seemed to like it.

What was your first real song?
“Muscadine Wine.” It was this little story about being young back where I was from. My grandpa used to make muscadine wine. Where I come from, people do things like that. So the song was about being young and in love, and also about my grandpa’s muscadine wine.

Did anyone hear it?
I made a little acoustic recording. I put it on a four-song demo that I used to get a publishing deal, along with a few co-writes I’d had that had gone well. Chuck Jones, Bob Regan and Jimmy Richey all sorta vouched for me.

Those guys had a lot of experience, and they wrote with me. They showed me how they did it, and said nice things.

But you were almost a pro football player, right? That’s a radical left turn.
I was in college when I was learning how to play guitar, but my passion was growing. I was playing college football at that time, and there was enough interest from the NFL and the encouragement from my coaches that I thought I needed to go on, to see what would happen. I wanted to pursue music, but I couldn’t walk away from football. At that point, I’d invested so much of my time and my life in it, put so much of my heart in it, I needed to finish that out. I went to rookie camp in May for the Chiefs. And when I realized I wasn’t going to get called, I did a couple other tryouts and free-agent things.

So you came close. Were you disappointed when it didn’t pan out?
When it was obvious I wasn’t going to make it, that set me free to pursue the music.

You’re that focused, aren’t you?
I have a one-track mind. Once I decide something, I pursue it wholeheartedly. I had my degree, but I wasn’t going to pursue that. I wanted and needed to try music. It was 2008, and it was important to me. So I moved to Nashville.

I felt I had to put in more than all the other singer/songwriters had to, because being a football player and coming to town, it felt like I didn’t fit into the musical circles. All these guys had been in bands; they’d been doing it all their life. I felt a little out of place, and I had a long way to go to catch up. But I was determined. And I still have a little bit of that underdog mentality.

What was the most difficult part?
Being a perfectionist, and all those tendencies where every little detail has to be perfect can get me into trouble. But it can also help. I have a unique way of looking at things; pushing to that, maybe it makes me different.

Your songs, whether Keith Urban’s “Cop Car” and Kenny Chesney’s “Come Over” or your own recordings, have a distinctive voice. The details, the way you shift rhythms.
What naturally comes out of me picking up a guitar to play or singing isn’t what normally comes out of other people’s mouths or minds. Fortunately, what comes out of me has appeal for some reason. Other people respond to it. Maybe they’re like me.

There’s been a lot of debate about your style. Is it country?
Yes, a 2017 version. There are times I’m a lot closer to what that is by popular vote. I enjoy all kinds of music, but as an artist, I want to speak to people who can relate to what I’m singing about, who’ve been there and know how it feels. I want to write songs about my life and my life experience. Our country culture today is different than it was 20 or 30 years ago. And if country music is about real life, then I’ve got that in how my songs are.

But you do have a strong urban feel.
I had two different groups of friends growing up. From playing ball, I had a lot of buddies from different cultural groups—and I connected with them in different ways. Being from the South, all those different styles of music sounded good to me, and I soaked them up equally. But some of my buddies wouldn’t listen to urban music—it was culturally too different, and not about who they were. They were country; that was what they listened to. And it was cool too.

Was it really that regimented?
Even that was different. Rural areas had the Internet, and our parents didn’t. Kids growing up on farms now don’t just have a few country stations to listen to. There’s so much music from the Internet, on your phone—stuff they wouldn’t have had access to at another time. When it’s all there, why not?

Then there’s soul music.
I remember hearing Usher the first time. I was really drawn to the stuff. The main ingredient in what I do is melody—I’m all about that. If you think about R&B in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s all about that. I came up in an era where R&B music really influenced everything. The choruses, lots of words, the phrasing and images. When I was young, before I had any biases to any style, that’s what caught my ear. There was certainly a cool factor to R&B music, more than country, which was about home and fun and where you are. And when you start noticing girls and you see what they like? Well, they really like Usher.

Any specific song?
It was “Nice & Slow.” As I’ve gotten older, something melodically about the intervals is so attractive to my ear.

And it’s flat-out sexy, something country used to be.
For a while there, the language that was used was sexy. I always check lyrics by taking the language out and saying, “Would you really say this? Is this how you’d speak to a lady?”

Your songs feel like you’re speaking to someone.
I’ve always loved the singer/songwriters—Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark. They were smarter. The imagery they used, and the visuals. You know that song “Tom Ames Prayer”? When Steve Earle sings:

Well they sent the preacher down to my cell.
He said the Lord is your only hope.
He’s the only friend that you gonna have.
When you hit the end of Parker’s rope.
Well I guess he could of kept on preaching till Christmas.
But he turned his back on me.
I put a homemade blade to that golden throat.
And asked the deputy for the key.

That was just too real, and the words he picked. I can see that whole thing happening, every last detail. That really stuck with me, all the little things that aren’t obvious.

I’m a little stunned. How did you find Steve and Guy and Townes?
Napster had come along, and you could just jump around. There was a record they all did, Together at the Bluebird Cafe. All I had was an acoustic guitar, and this was so raw. This was something I could do. Those guys were characters—it comes through in their writing.

One of the other things that really stands out is the vulnerability of your writing.
It’s not intentional. The songs shouldn’t be seen as gloomy. At times, that could’ve been my Achilles heel, but those emotions naturally inspired my songs.

I wouldn’t describe them as gloomy.
Music isn’t an outlet to be tough. You’re a grown man singing a song, so you’re vulnerable from the start. I’ve never understood tough talk, these songs that stick your chest out. What’s the point? You’re singing a song. Most of my songs—for the most part—are inspired by relationships. Those emotions can put you in a pretty vulnerable spot if you’re being honest.

Now that you’re married, does that change?
There are certain emotions that aren’t as easily accessible, but I’m perfectly OK with the trade-off. I’m not as inspired by those emotions, but I have new ones to draw on.

What else factors into your songwriting?
Now that I have a better understanding of the live experience, it’s good to have that shade in the set, but people who come out to the show want to feel good. So you want to have stuff that’s up.

Well, you’re bringing sexy back.
[Laughs] I’m not really convinced. People are intrigued by the position we’re in. Really, that’s it as much as anything.

No, it’s not.
Well, a lot of it goes back to the R&B music, just the swing of it. I never picked up a song and learned it, or wrote a song—to put it bluntly—for guys. Especially from the R&B side, my interest in it reflects my interest in a woman. Period. A lot of those relationships and love inspire these songs.

Are you romantic?
My wife would say, “Not particularly.” From a candlelight-and-dinner place, not particularly. But in terms of interacting and engaging, how I listen and try to communicate… I love making her feel wanted and sexy and safe, all those things. I’m romantic like that.

So monogamy is erotic.
There are steps to a committed relationship that you can never reach without it. That’s a lot of it. The general nature of how the male perspective relates to the female perspective, that reflects me, and how I interact with her. The longer I’m in this, the deeper it can go.

It’s a learning experience.
Getting to know my wife and learn her, how to talk to her, was everything. We met in college. She was walking across campus with a few people, and I knew one of the girls she was with. So I went over, and introduced myself. As a young boy who’s wired completely differently, a lot goes into it. Women are way more complicated. A lot of that connection with her really taught me.

But you also managed to keep that innocence. “Cop Car” is all wonder, where “Come Over” is full of lust.
Those two songs reflect a transition from a small-town romantic innocent to a real grown-up adult. I was back and forth between being a small-town kid and maturing. A song like “Come Over,” which had a little more to it, came later. At 18, I couldn’t have written it, but “Cop Car” was more relatable.

Once I’d moved to Nashville, I’d lived more life—and you have more baggage. But you put it all in the songs. And “Come Over” is a song I connect with as a fan; it’s that tortured, longing, turmoil sort of relationship. It’s a human emotion we all have.

It seems like the things that drive you aren’t typical.
I’m fortunate because my motivation at the end of the day is writing songs and making music I enjoy. I don’t need excess in creating monetary value with them.

Is that why you gave away your music starting out, and why you’ve made your music available outside the standard single-sets-up-album launch model?
I wanted to do this as an artist under certain conditions. If I have to do it some other way, then I’m not interested in success. I’ve been able to do things that make sense to me, that give people the music. When people say, “This is really good for your career,” I think, “But is it good for the music? Is it good for the fans?”

And that’s what drove you?
There was a plan in motion. Very strict and calculated. If at any time there was pressure to deviate from it, I’d just step away. I started to lean on a spiritual radar I’d always had. It tells me, “Hey! This is right,” “This is wrong” or “This is the thing to do.” If a photo or some kind of video, or activity didn’t relate to the music, gave me bad vibes, I walked away. We honed those instincts pretty early on, and became pretty accurate. I became hypersensitive on a daily basis.

That’s got to be tricky, dealing with business people.
[Laughs] A lot of times I’d make decisions, and it would take a big effort to get people to understand what was in my heart. They might’ve thought I was being difficult, or arrogant or different. But I was always trying to do the right thing. And I got some weird looks for the decisions. But that spiritual energy that I started to hone in on? When I knew something was the right thing, I knew.

When you know, you know.
There’s an energy I became aware of that people tap into from different religions. It’s very palpable, and it became very real for me, that peace you get. I find peace in life in general, but that’s a huge part of knowing what to do.

So you can trust the evolution and the process.
I never want to let it become a business; I just want to make it about the music and the fans. Me taking a step back after “Single for the Summer,” “Break Up in a Small Town,” “Drinking Again” was important. I never want the celebrity to overwhelm the other parts of my life and what I do. I love music—it’s important to me, but it’s not everything I am. I’ve never gotten caught up in all the things people can get caught up in. Music is one of my passions, and how to make a living, but I never let it define me, so I can keep doing the right thing for the music, instead of using the music for my own ends.

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