At a Sam Hunt concert, every song he plays sparks an audible ripple of recognition through the crowd. Every lyric is amplified by hundreds of voices, all of them well attuned to each nuance and inflection. This kind of devotion is usually reserved for veteran performers, the ones playing arenas with decades of No. 1 singles under their belts. Yet Hunt’s debut, Montevallo, was just released at the end of October, making the fervent devotion it inspired that much more remarkable.
Hunt began amassing a following in the summer of 2013, when he made a series of acoustic tracks available for free download on his website, eventually releasing them as a mixtape called Between the Pines. It was an unusual first move for an artist who already had a publishing deal in Nashville. But Hunt isn’t like other country artists. There are traces of hip-hop in his artful, spoken-word delivery as well as in his songs’ grinding beats, and he blends influences from all over today’s popular music landscape, from buoyant pop (“Single for the Summer”) to anthemic rock (“Raised on It”).
Within months of releasing those acoustic tracks, Hunt signed with Universal Nashville. Last month his single “Leave the Night On” had reached the top of Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart. But that was just the beginning of Hunt’s success: His 2015 headlining tour sold out almost instantly in many markets; his album landed at No. 1 on Billboard‘s country albums chart, too.
Wondering Sound caught up with Hunt to ask about building the foundation for his career online and how he was able to de-emphasize the importance of the single in favor of something bigger.
Let’s talk about the music you self-released last year. You did things in a different way than a lot of country artists, gaining an online following before radio airplay.
At the time, it was the most direct route from myself to the people listening. I had seen the value of the internet working for so many other artists. I didn’t have a record deal at the time, and making a full-length album is an expensive thing to do. I didn’t have the money or the backing of a record label to make a full-length album. So I had recently met a guy named Zach Crowell — I had heard a demo of his and really wanted to write with him. I had been looking for somebody who did what he did, and he did it really, really well. We hit it off personally, and we went over to his house and brainstormed about songwriting, and the whole internet thing and how I might go about pursuing a career. That was the first thing that came up, the idea that we’d sit down and record songs on acoustic guitar and put them up on the internet for free. In other genres, that’s something that happens more often, especially in hip-hop. So we just followed that model and didn’t really put too much thought into it.
Do you think it’s beneficial to continue doing mixtapes?
Yeah. I do. I think it’s important to continue to put out music, personally, in less conventional ways. I mean, I’d still like to put out my second album the way a traditional second album would come out. But I’d also like to find creative ways to put out different versions of songs, or different batches of songs in other ways, similar to the way we put out the mixtape.
Why is that? Do you think this format specifically had an impact on the way your traditional album has performed with fans?
Yeah. It gave me a foundation, even though it was very small at first, that we were able to build on. It’s important early on, when you’re asking people to listen to your music, that it’s happening without you involved. [You want] people spreading the word and telling other people about your music — [to get them] so interested that they want to share this music with somebody else. If you hear it coming from me, of course that’s what I’m gonna say — that I want you to listen to my music. But when it’s a third party, who’s just come across this music in some form and wants to share it, that’s something completely different. That’s a lot more valuable.
With radio play being such a vital part of the country format, there’s a lot of emphasis in country music on the song as a single unit. You’ve written lots of songs that didn’t even make it onto the album — how did you choose which songs to include on this, your first “traditional” album?
I’ve been writing songs for so many years, but I wanted there to be continuity on this record. I wanted to put songs on the record that best represented a certain era of my songwriting. I started writing with the record in mind and I just kept writing until I had enough songs to put on the record. I had a few extras that didn’t end up making the record, so I picked the ones that I thought had to be on the record. I didn’t think about specific songs as far as singles or anything like that. I just went through the back of songs I had written in that 18-to-24-month period and I picked the best ones that I felt represented me.
“Leave the Night On” was co-written with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, and you’ve had success working with other writers on several other songs. Tell me a little bit about working with other writers on a co-write.
It was very new to me when I moved to town. I learned a lot about the craft from a lot of great songwriters. I had to learn how to balance the co-writing element with my own, spending a lot of personal time on songs on my own. Eventually that’s what I learned to do, what I’m still working on. A co-write is different for everybody, because there are different personalities, different methods, different ways to go about it. I guess I’ve sort of found my own process as an artist, which is probably different than most folks. The most important thing is that you find people you connect with as people, people who you can relate to. I’m good friends with the two or three guys that I write with, and I think that’s why we write so well together.
This is a bit of a departure from mainstream country, which surprises a lot of people. Songs like “X2C” and “Break Up in a Small Town” lean pretty far toward R&B and pop. Can you tell me a little bit about your production choices?
I don’t think I was really aware of the risks I was taking, not nearly as much as I am aware now after hearing some of the feedback and having people interpret the songs and the sound and the music as being very different. It was just a matter of me really following what instinctively turned me on as a listener. At the end of the day, that’s all I can do. It’s hard for me to make music based on what people will like or what people should do or what new artists are expected to do. I just have to turn to my own instinctual thing. That’s the way I went through the whole process. As I was writing lyrics or melodies, or when we were coming up with sounds from a production standpoint, as far as drums and instrumentation — if it made me feel something, I knew it had to be right. That’s what I rely on. I’ve seen people, from producers to songwriters that I work with, who have a similar instinct, and together we just referred to those when we were making this record.
What do you think makes this a country record? You could easily see some of these songs catching on with more of an R&B or pop audience.
Truthfully, I’m not really sure. That’s something that is asked of me a lot lately, and I’d rather not comment on it. It’s such a broad conversation and a broad argument that I’d rather just…there’s too many variables for me to really just dive into that controversy.
I can see that — the variables. Do you think, with all of the different choices and changes, that country is becoming less sectioned off from other genres?
I think the genre is broadening as a whole, but I think the culture that the genre has always represented is also progressing and broadening. So I think it’s a natural thing that’s happening. It’s not being forced, I don’t believe, but I do believe that it’s breaking down some of the stereotypes that have prevented people historically from giving country a chance. So I think that’s a good thing.