Sam Hunt, the R&B-loving country star, is challenging Nashville rules - and winning
For the first time, Sam Hunt - country music's biggest pop crossover hope since Taylor Swift - finally got a chance to talk Thursday night.
Not in the form of a media interview to plug a new single, or a bit of "is everybody having a good night?" banter between party songs. Instead, he sat down onstage, acoustic guitar in hand, before the thousands flocking to the kickoff concert of his first major headlining tour, to explain who he is and what he wants to be.
"I never get a chance to really sit down and kick it with y'all," Hunt told the screaming fans who chose him over watching the hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. "I want to get to know you a little bit. I want y'all to get to know me."
In a nearly 10-minute monologue, he defended his signature (and polarizing) blend of country and R&B, and turned it into a call for tolerance. This kind of politically tinged commentary, gentle as it was, is rare among young Nashville artists; and it perfectly captured why Hunt, 32, remains an outlier even throughout his meteoric rise over the past three years.
Strumming his guitar, he talked about growing up in Georgia on a steady diet of Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt - and later, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Juvenile. So the country and R&B influences always mixed naturally for him, even as mentors warned "These songs aren't going to work for country."
Five No. 1 hits and a Grammy-nominated debut album later (2014's "Montevallo"), Hunt's early triumphs have allowed him to dismiss the haters and make his own rules in an otherwise regimented genre. He dropped a surprise track at midnight on New Year's Eve, and he launched a massive headlining tour with no sophomore album yet in sight. And he's talking onstage like this:
"No generation has ever been as culturally integrated as you guys are," Hunt told the Blossom Music Center audience, which was largely millennial (and, yes, as overwhelmingly white as most country shows). "Y'all don't pay attention to genres of music. You don't pay attention to genres of people. You listen to what makes us feel good, and you hang out with people you like, not people who look like you."
He added: "This generation, when y'all take over - and it's already happening - y'all are gonna tear down some of the walls that have divided people in this country for a long time." Hunt also referenced the incident earlier this week when LeBron James's Los Angeles home was vandalized with spray-painted racial slurs. It "makes me sick," he said, and "hurts my heart."
"I'm not preaching to you," he concluded. "But in the spirit of getting to know each other, I wanted y'all to know what's been on my heart here lately."
Hunt's tour is called the "15 in a 30 Tour," alluding to a lyric in his latest earworm, "Body Like a Back Road," in which he boasts about knowing "every curve like the back of my hand, doin' 15 in a 30," as in a 30 mile-per-hour zone.
"I wanted to slow things down a bit this summer," he told the crowd.
His career, however, is only picking up speed; "Body Like a Back Road," released in February, hit No. 1 last month and just broke the 1-million sales mark - "selling like a pop song," as the Nashville sages say. Pop radio quickly coopted it for its own playlists, and it became the first country single since Florida Georgia Line's 2012 monster hit "Cruise" to crack the top 10 of Billboard's all-genre Top 100.
"It's definitely taking on a life of its own," said Shane McAnally, a co-writer on "Body Like a Back Road" who also co-produced Hunt's first album. "It's just one of those dream scenarios where you just can't put your finger on it, you don't know why."
New music from Hunt is valuable currency to his fans, who have seen little of it since 2014. Recently, Hunt hinted that he might just keep releasing singles when he feels like it - a break from Nashville protocol, where labels try to coordinate No. 1 radio hits with album releases.
During his show on Thursday, he stuck to songs fans have known for years, including his early YouTube releases from before he had a record deal. Unlike most stars, he is not plugging a new album with this tour.
"It's usually not how it's done in country music - country is still kind of one of the most album-focused genres," said Dave Brooks, Billboard's senior correspondent for touring. Hunt, he said, is "upending what we thought of as 'the country trajectory.' "
Hunt's only other recent single was that New Year's Eve release, a mostly spoken-word track called "Drinkin' Too Much" that was a painfully personal apology to his girlfriend (and now-wife) for various transgressions. It never went to radio, and its unabashed emo quality only ramped up the frequent comparisons to R&B superstar Drake.
"It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, because I think it's coming to a boiling point, his career," McAnally said. "There's a tipping point where you're like 'Oh - what just happened?' And I think this tour is going to do it."
The audience didn't seem to care what genre Hunt favored as he worked through his hits - "Leave the Night On," "Breakup in a Small Town," "Take Your Time," and "House Party," during which he jumped off the stage and ran through the crowd. He marveled at finally being the headliner: "I'm not used to playing this late!"
He repeatedly thanked the audience for passing up the Cavs game ("I'll tell you what's really making my heart swell up right now, y'all showed up with LeBron on TV") and basked in an impressive range of covers, from Tritt's "It's a Great Day to Be Alive" to Outkast's "Hey Ya," for which he brought openers Maren Morris, Chris Janson and Ryan Follese back on stage. Typically somewhat stoic, Hunt beamed throughout the entire night.
"Thank you for supporting us these last three years," he said. "And most importantly, thank you, country radio and all the fans for allowing us to make the music that we feel like we're supposed to make."