NEW YORK — He looks like Captain America in a baseball cap, and if he isn’t here to save country music, he’s at least here to change it.
It’s a brisk autumn Tuesday, and Sam Hunt has trekked to Manhattan to perform on “Good Morning America” and plug “Montevallo,” a major-label debut that bends country music toward hip-hop and R&B with an artfulness that bucks trends and defies logic.
Named after the Alabama town where Hunt spent a few of his college years, “Montevallo” feels like the most seductive, deceptively original and flat-out best album released this year. And it’s lean — just 10 songs. “Like a restaurant that only has a few options,” Hunt says.
Sticking with that metaphor, Hunt’s music also qualifies as fine fusion cuisine — and it has arrived at a time when Nashville’s other leading men are busy slapping country and rap together like pickles on peanut butter. Flip your radio on, and you’ll hear them flirting with hip-hop in mysterious, superficial and increasingly horrific ways. It’s a trend that seems more heavily influenced by focus groups than by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.
But not for Hunt. The 29-year-old is a fine-grain storyteller who knows how to roll, bounce, massage and leap-frog syllables in speedy, nuanced bursts. His most emotive verses toggle between singing and speech, locating a previously undiscovered sweet spot between Conway Twitty and Drake. This all sounds very clever on paper, but in the air, it sounds like the future.
“He’s definitely a guy who took a risk with his sound,” says Bobby Bones, the radio host whose nationally syndicated morning show is the biggest in country music. “And the people who take the biggest risks are usually the people who make it. I haven’t seen anyone grow as fast as he has, and that’s all because of his originality.”
Hunt’s background is as unique as his music. He learned how to make stadiums scream not as a stage performer, but as a quarterback at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I’ve always craved winning,” Hunt says. “It’s just easier in sports, because there’s a scoreboard.”
Billboard’s country singles chart is the closest thing Nashville has to a scoreboard, and this week, Hunt’s name is at the top of it. A week after dropping “Montevallo,” he’s earned his first No. 1 as a solo artist with “Leave the Night On,” an affable party-anthem co-written with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, members of a songwriting klatch associated with last year’s next-big-thing, Kacey Musgraves.
Much like Musgraves, Hunt seems poised to plant his flag in the center of country music’s eternally roiling debate over what’s real, what’s phony and — in the end — what’s good.
“It was never my intention to be controversial, but I like the idea that [this album] may stir up conversation about music, and genres, and what’s what,” Hunt says, in a deep Georgia drawl. “I like disagreement, because it forces both sides to question their own opinions and why they feel that way.”
Those aren’t quite fighting words, but in a genre where regime change requires that you mind your manners, they come pretty close.
Here’s something crazy: Hunt didn’t really listen to a lot of music growing up. “I had a couple CDs,” he confesses. “But I never had that first concert experience, that first record thing.”
His mother, Joan, a third-grade teacher, says she remembers her son memorizing the lyrics to an Alabama hit and, later, singing a Beach Boys tune in a fifth-grade presentation. (She also remembers his voice sounding a little hoarse from shouting at a Little League game the night before.)
“I never thought to have him take piano lessons or anything like that,” she says over the phone from Cedartown, Ga., the town 60 miles northwest of Atlanta where Sam grew up. “He’d rather be outside throwing a ball.”
As a kid, Hunt learned to love country music during Wednesday-night church suppers, where he’d convince his mom to let him go out to the car and surf the radio dial. As a teenager, he learned to love good storytelling by eavesdropping on the old guys hanging out at the Bojangles.
Shortly after graduating from high school, Hunt plunked down $200 at a pawnshop for an Epiphone acoustic guitar that he could take with him to college. He learned “G, C, D, E-minor,” and by the time he enrolled at UAB, he could play a couple of Kenny Chesney songs and the intro of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.”
A career in professional football started to seem like an actual possibility for Hunt after a strong season his senior year, and after graduation, he was invited to a free-agent training camp hosted by the Kansas City Chiefs. But he didn’t make it past the first week. So he settled on an even more far-fetched career path. He packed up his car for Nashville.
“You probably could have blown me over with a feather,” Joan Hunt says of her reaction at the time. “I said, ‘Well, you’re 22. You better do it now.’ ”
Newbies don’t land on Music Row more wide-eyed than Hunt did.
“When I got to Nashville [in 2008], I discovered that you could make a living writing songs for other people,” he says. “I didn’t even know all these songs came from this one community.”
That innocence makes McAnally — the co-producer of “Montevallo” and one of Hunt’s go-to songwriting collaborators — laugh out loud.
“Sam is just somebody who’s really good at a lot of stuff,” McAnally says. “The kid picks up a football, and he’s wonderful at it. Then he picks up a guitar, and he’s great at it. He can’t take a bad picture. He’s just one of those people; if I didn’t love him so much, I’d hate him.”
After a few months in Nashville spent parking cars at a hospital, Hunt had plugged himself into a network of songwriters, signed a publishing deal and wandered his way into McAnally’s clique. In a nifty act of guitar-student-to-hitmaker symmetry, he co-wrote “Come Over,” a booty-call ballad that Chesney would take to No. 1 in 2012.
Things were moving fast. But in an industry town where the hits can take years to travel from a songwriter’s brain to a fan’s eardrum, they weren’t moving fast enough for Hunt.
“I had come to town with my hat in my hand, and I was looking to become educated on how this world works,” he says. “But then I realized that maybe there wasn’t a paradigm you had to stick to. I started to question things.”
Eager to assert himself as a solo artist, he self-released last year “Between the Pines,” a cluster of songs that he gave away online as a “mixtape,” imitating a tactic that rappers have been using to launch careers for more than a decade. The hive started buzzing, and less than a year later, Hunt was signing his name to a record contract.
Not that there weren’t a few hiccups along the way.
“Cop Car,” one of the songs that Hunt would release on “Between the Pines” and later “Montevallo,” had been shopped around Nashville by music publishers and snatched up by Keith Urban, who turned it into a hit. But Hunt’s latest stroke of good luck didn’t feel so lucky. He had hoped to be the first to release the song, under his own name.
So when Urban performed “Cop Car” — a song about falling in love while being carted off to jail — at January’s Grammy Awards, Hunt took his frustrations to Twitter: “Everything I poured into that song was stolen from me. I unfortunately can’t celebrate it being on The Grammys.”
Months later, the smoke has cleared. “The way that song made it out into the world — it happened through a series of unfortunate circumstances that ended up being out of my control,” Hunt says. “I just felt like I was putting this movie together and this was a pivotal scene that was unfortunately taken out early and put in a different context. But obviously, ‘Cop Car’ made it on [my] record, and it’s worked out fine.”
And let’s be real. Urban sings “Cop Car” like it’s a fading memory. Hunt sings it like the cuts on his handcuffed wrists are just starting to heal. Guess which version is better?
“Leave the Night On” might be sitting pretty at the top of the charts, but it’s the lightest bauble on “Montevallo,” a songbook crammed with laughter and bruises.
The album begins with “Take Your Time,” a song where Hunt rattles off a series of sly pickup lines, but is soon dredging up deep truths from the murky end of the dating pool.
“I’m sure one of your friends is about to come over ’cause she’s supposed to save you from random guys who talk too much . . . ,” Hunt explains in his speaking voice, then finishes his thought in melody, “. . . and want to stay too long. It’s the same old song.”
These verses are strangely thrilling, and they first took shape roughly three years ago in a co-writing session with Osborne and McAnally. If great lyrics are supposed to flow like conversation, Hunt was making conversation flow like lyrics.
“Honestly, he’s one of the best lyricists I’ve ever met,” Osborne says. “I think there’s room in country music for a guy like that. Or if not, Sam is somebody we need to make room for.”
Hunt’s speaking-singing-rapping-crooning is even more arresting on “Break Up in a Small Town,” a powder-keg ballad about how social-circle claustrophobia can amplify the ache of a heartbreak.
In the first verse, Hunt gets stuck at a stoplight idling beside his ex’s “white Maxima with the sticker on the back.” In the second verse, he’s lamenting that “she was over me before the grass grew back where she used to park her car.” In the refrain, he’s confessing that he never thought “she would get down with somebody I know / I guess that’s just how it goes when you break up in a small town.” Then, a steel-guitar melody floats over heaving synths cribbed from Kanye West’s “808s and Heartbreak.” It shouldn’t work, but all it does is work.
“A good story gives you more of a license to be forward and progressive with the music,” Hunt says of his craft. “I’ve tried to work really hard on never phoning in the lyrics.”
And while his lyricism is surgical, his phrasing is instinctive. He says his vocal intuition has been influenced by Usher and Nelly as much as it has been by George Strait and Alan Jackson. On country radio, this makes him singular. “He’ll take a line and insert or take out a syllable in a way that my brain cannot process,” McAnally says.
The question now is whether or not everyone else can process it. Hopefully they can. Because what Hunt is giving us sounds like great narrative country music. And high-sheen radio fare. And an elegant reconciliation of disparate pop dialects.
But above all, it sounds like the truth.