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SAM HUNT'S PROGRESSIVE COUNTRY

Sam Hunt’s music is as unique as his backstory. The Cedartown, Ga., native and onetime Alabama Birmingham starting quarterback prefers old-school country music—specifically the conversational lyrics of Merle Haggard or Steve Earle—but he’s able to inject these traditional elements with hip-hop flows and production that employs 808s as well as pedal steel.

Following the triple-platinum success of his 2014 debut album, Montevallo (MCA Nashville), and its #1 singles “Leave the Night On,” “House Party” and “Take Your Time,” Hunt dropped the off-cycle track “Body Like a Back Road,” shattering every genre convention. While hip-hop has been permeating country music. it’s typically more of a grafted-on commodity, in contrast to Hunt’s groundbreaking synthesis. As The New York TimesJon Caramanica wrote in a 2020 profile, Hunt “has long been established as the most progressive and musically polyglot performer in mainstream Nashville.”

On Southside, his long-awaited second album, Hunt digs deeper while subtly pushing the stylistic envelope. While Lil Nas X and the Grammy-winning “Old Town Road” may’ve taken the alchemy further, Hunt had doubled down on the country side of his authenticity. Sampling Webb Pierce’s wobbly recording “There Stands the Glass” in the smooth soul/country of “Hard to Forget” makes the retro element buoyant. His fluid “Sinning With You,” whispered over an acoustic guitar, harkens back to the creative warrens that fostered Bobby Braddock, Willie Nelson and Rodney Crowell, building on personal confession instead of merely well-constructed songcraft.

Hunt walked away from the supernova arc to pursue Hannah Lee Fowler, the woman he loved pre-fame, and surrendered to chase “the dream”; they’re now married. The doubts, the commitment, the truths expressed in his songs have actually been lived. Caramanica describes Southside as “unflashily impressive, containing some of his riskiest work and also some of his most traditional. It is, depending on your angle, a reminder Hunt is a Nashville provocateur, or a Nashville provocateur who can write better songs than almost everyone he’s trying to provoke.”

The sound of Southside is undefinable, but the songs are undeniable.
I always feel at the end [of a project] that I can do better. But the element of honesty, of life lived, that’s there. We walked through a lot of things to get here, but we did it our way.

Nashville has always had the Music Row approach to writing, but you’ve avoided it.
There’s definitely a songwriter machine in Nashville that’s productive and has a lot of good songwriters—guys in rooms writing catchy hooks with plays on words. But for me, it’s just... something else. Sometimes it feels like your words just make the puzzle fit, but really, “What’s the story?” All the craftsmanship and stuff, to me, that’s just how we tell it.

Your use of language is very direct.
For my songs to work, they’re in a vernacular that’s conversational and more vulnerable. It’s like a conversation Merle Haggard might be having. And the songs aren’t written super-tight, nor are the ideas super-traditional. When people listen, I want to be a person they’ve gotten to know, not this guy who’s been sold to them.

Were you trying, in this singles world, to tell a story with the album?
I didn’t set out to tell a story as much as pick the best songs. But then, it ended up being about me trying to walk out of the limelight, to put my life into order. It wasn’t me writing from that personal place so much as writing honestly about it from experience, for anyone else trying to sort these kinds of things out.

So it is personal.
More honest, I think; that’s such an important part of this music. A lot of times, it comes from the title, but you’re not just writing the hook. The point you’re making is intuitive. If you work from there, the hook reveals itself.

That sounds like a singer/songwriter’s perspective.
As a singer, I was always attracted to songs that were written by one person, or felt that way. My fans, I think, were drawn to songs that were vulnerable, that showed what was underneath—and I owe it to them to stay that way.

You’ve always had that old-school thing, harkening back to what Nashville was.
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, those writers would work for weeks to get a song right, then send these tapes to their publisher every couple weeks; they’d change and evolve over time. Some of our biggest artists became big because of those songs, [which expressed] where they came from, what they went through and really getting it in the song. For Merle Haggard to be that prolific, he had to live it. And it took a toll. You can’t fake it if you want to make it, because people can hear the difference. Some of that life you don’t wanna put out there, but it’s still part of it.

Is this where I ask about the DUI?
It happened. People in my camp were talking about suppressing it, but why would I be afraid to talk about it? If it happens, it’s true. I was raised and taught to respect [alcohol]. Moderation is important. I’ve never wanted to glorify it. It’s a cheap trick in country music, and I’ve always wanted to avoid that. I don’t like using [drinking] as a party song; for me, that wouldn’t be honest. I’ve never been the guy who shotguns a beer. I know people who partake that way, and I wouldn’t want to shake my finger or look down on them.

It’s not that I don’t drink at all, but I put myself in a position by being out, seeing friends at a show, leaving my phone in an Uber. We’d Uber’d all night, then went back to a friend’s house, had some pizza. I fell asleep on the couch, woke up groggy. I should’ve been more conscious, but I wasn’t. So I take responsibility.


What don’t you write about in your life?
I won’t go so far as to say that if you love somebody, you can exclude these things. But it’s a personal thing. The soulmate is definitely implied in everything, but there’s a fine line between something that’s true to your life and exposing them.

I love writing songs about that place and the circumstances before I got to Nashville. The reality of a historical record—of everything you did—it’s out there for all time. And it puts a mirror on everyone who was there. You know people are going to get exposed.

Are you romantic?
You ask my wife, she’d say no. But I think I romanticize things. I’m too much in my head, and probably more sensitive than most. So I probably am romantic.

Are you religious?
That’s hard to answer. I have a belief system that leans heavily on faith. But a lot of questions continue to evolve.

That brings us to “Sinning With You.”
[The song is about] somebody dealing with moral conflicts that come with Christian beliefs. A lot of religion’s [view of] sex seems to be shades of gray. The real message isn’t that, but “More than any other person, with you it’s just different.” It isn’t right or wrong; it’s how different everything is with this person.

The lyric of “2016” is Kristofferson-like in the detail, the references, how you bend emotions.
All of it. Absolutely. But I don’t feel brave for putting it out, because that’s about me. If something’s true, I’ve never been bothered if people find out. If I ever painted myself in a false light, that would bother me. Even if it was a less flattering light but true, well, OK.

“Hard to Forget” is the ultimate Sam Hunt mash-up.
When my granddaddy was alive, I was around a lot of country music from a bygone era. Being around people who grew up on this music, you experience it more fluidly. Classics like that tend to show up, whether it’s the little feedstore downtown or just listening in the truck.

I’ve always loved experimenting. It’s being a chef, wanting ingredients from around the world, different flavors to create something no one’s ever tasted. That idea of both worlds in one place makes me happy. And Webb Pierce singing into a drum loop? I knew that was a whole new song.

And you called the album Southside.
It just captures the urban and the rural sides of my upbringing. It’s a phrase that means something in both worlds. And it’s hard to articulate. You know the southside is usually the rough, rugged side of town. Plus, the word “South” is more a feeling than a direction or a place. Honestly, throughout all of this, that word kept popping out. At a certain point, you pay attention to that stuff. Besides, it really is a pretty big piece of who I am.

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