Is Sam Hunt Nashville’s next new sound? Very possibly.
His debut album Montevallo is shaking things up and people are talking…
He’s earned two country radio hit singles, Montevallo has sold 320k units in just 16 weeks, plus he’s received an ACM Best New Artist nomination. He’s also co-written hits for Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and Billy Currington.
But who’s best at recognizing significant new artists, anyway— the music industry or the fans? With artists such as Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift, the fans seemed to jump on board way ahead of the industry which was still dismissing Swift’s music as a “too pop” fad and Brooks as just another hat act. But the fans knew better, because the music made them feel something and they responded.
Sam Hunt could well be one of those “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” size talents. His colorful musical stories capture emotions and moments in a unique, poetic way that many of the genre’s cliche-ridden tunes lately seem hell-bent to avoid. And his ticket and music sales show he is connecting with consumers.
Overnight success? Hardly. In 2013, with no label, Hunt released a free acoustic mixtape, which he and producer Zach Crowell painstakingly fashioned. Soon, his songs were averaging 300,000 streams/day on Spotify. “In hip-hop, they do a great job of making the music accessible,” Hunt says. “When somebody’s never heard you, just give them the music and let them decide for themselves if they like it or not.”
The bold strategy yielded a record deal with Universal/MCA Nashville, a preview EP—X2C; and then Montevallo, an album that sold 70,000 units during its debut week at the top of the country album chart. The Georgia native’s Lipstick Graffiti tour sold out quickly and this summer he will also be opening for Lady Antebellum.
The songs vary widely in scope, but several themes flow through the entire collection. The arrangements shift from loud to soft and from full band to sparse instrumentation. This wide dynamic range creates a tension and release which adds power to the romantic intentions of the characters. It’s hard to locate, but buried under the tracks in many places are party sounds which make you feel special to have been invited. Percussive effects get sprinkled on the tracks like jimmies on an ice cream cone, from handclaps to programmed bumps and thumps. Here’s a few standout moments…
“Take Your Time”
Writers: Hunt, Josh Osborne, Shane McAnally
Hypnotic. Hunt approaches a goddess with spoken words, short sung phrases and an understated confidence sure to get results as he demonstrates—for us mere mortals—how to pick up the girl of our dreams. The relaxed back beat is engaging while the vocal effortlessly soars above, around and inside the track. He croons, “Your eyes are so intimidating, my heart is pounding… I don’t want to steal your freedom… I just want to take your time.”
“Leave The Night On”
Writers: Hunt, Osborne, McAnally
Already No. 1 and platinum, this track breathes rhythmically like lovers entwined. Unlike most country music that lives squarely on the beat, here the accents push and pull giving the piece a modern feel. Production aficionados take note, this 3:11 audio envelope is packed with innovative touches. When the bridge appears the singer says playfully to his lover, “The sun’ll steal the magic from us soon, so let’s take one more trip around the moon.”
“Breakup In A Small Town”
Writers: Hunt, Crowell, McAnally
It can be devastating to get dumped on, especially in a small town where everyone knows everything. This track sounds nothing like Taylor Swift, but just like her best work, the lyric delivers teen angst in full force. “She was over me before the grass grew back where she used to park her car.”
“Single For The Summer”
Writers: Hunt, Crowell, Osborne, McAnally
Synthesized keyboards and highly processed vocals form an imaginative neo-country soundscape intro. Just before the verse begins, the words “school’s out” rise out of the swirl to set the stage. “SFTS” could be the sleeper hit on this collection that blows Hunt’s career wide and deep a little later this year. The song’s urban-suburban poetry should hit the iPod generation across all demos. Here’s a lyrical taste, but for full effect you need to hear Hunt recite it. Put your top down and crank it up LOUD…
“I graduated but every year in May I get that school’s out feeling
I feel it creepin’ and everyday’s a weekend and I’m drowning in the freedom
Blame it on the bikinis, party girls and martinis and the sunshine
Private school daughters, who never go in the water, keepin’ their hair just right
I know in September, I will remember, how much I love her
I’m single for the suh-uh-uh, single for the summer”
Writers: Hunt, Crowell, Matt Jenkins
Keith Urban already stamped his impressive talents on this song, so one might counsel the new guy, “Don’t take the unnecessary risk of including it and inviting comparison.” Fortunately, the track did get included because Hunt’s version re-introduces this story tied to a percussive pulsing heartbeat which works nicely. This is another production tour de force.
So is Sam Hunt the next big thing? It will take more than one great album before an artist gets the jacket with those words on the back. And he’s going to need to be able to follow up this success with an equally engaging sophomore set. Can he also reach out to fans from the under the lights and continue growing his live ticket sales? These are a few of the challenges that lie ahead. But with Montevallo, Hunt has already proven himself one of the most innovative mainstream artists to emerge from Music City’s machine is quite some time. And most importantly, it’s not just critics talking. Consumers are also making noise, reacting and voting with their dollars.
Recommendation: If you haven’t listened to Sam Hunt, open up your ears or risk getting left behind.