Hunt, whose unique blend of country mixed with R&B and spoken word made him both a polarizing figure and a quick-rising star, headlined the Stagecoach Festival in Indio, Calif., Saturday night in front of 80,000 fans, which would be an ideal time to promote new material; it was his first show since he opened for Luke Bryan’s stadium tour in October. Instead, Hunt performed tracks from his nearly half-decade-old album and 2013 EP, “Between the Pines.”
The intrigue has ramped up recently (SAM HUNT HAS DISAPPEARED,” proclaimed one country music website; “Sam Hunt has been M.I.A. for six months” insisted another) as the specifics of Hunt’s progress on his next album remain a closely guarded secret. Ask a songwriter in Nashville about Hunt’s silence, and you’ll frequently be met with a nervous glance or a long pause — especially if they’ve been writing songs with him, or know someone who is.
Representatives for Hunt and his label did not reply to requests for comment. The star clearly values his privacy: He has 2.2 million followers on Instagram but hasn’t posted at all since last summer.
Hunt, 34, is clearly aware that his career trajectory mystifies industry observers. (In a SiriusXM interview before the concert, the hosts jokingly introduced him as “the man who has just been released from witness protection.”)
“I haven’t put out a whole lot of music in the last 24 months,” Hunt acknowledged to the Stagecoach crowd in his Alabama drawl. “But I want to thank y’all for being patient.”
Hunt is far from the first artist who broke through with a huge debut only to make fans wait years for new music — think Lorde or Frank Ocean. But it's particularly rare in the country world, where labels typically keep artists on a more regimented schedule and try to release albums as their singles peak on the radio charts.
“In terms of the distance since his last album . . . you can look back and go, ‘Okay, it’s been almost five years, that’s a really long time in the music cycle,’” said RJ Curtis, executive director of Country Radio Broadcasters. Most singers are eager to capitalize on their initial hits before their fans move on or new trends emerge in the genre. Yet he doesn’t think it’s necessarily too late for Hunt: “The intrigue and anticipation can really work for an artist, particularly with the momentum he had with his first album.”
In interviews, Hunt has offered many reasons for why his second album is taking so long: He likes the idea of releasing singles whenever they’re ready, instead of tethered to a CD release schedule. He got married in 2017, so his attention shifted away from music. He has pointed to the lyrics of last year’s melancholy “Downtown’s Dead” — which describes the diminishing appeal of partying when the person you love is at home — as a metaphor for his feelings about his newfound stardom. Hunt’s collaborators sometimes refer to the singer as a “reluctant” celebrity.
Perhaps most surprisingly: Hunt has confessed that, for a while, he simply didn’t know what to write about. Much of “Montevallo” was inspired by his formerly complicated relationship with his now-wife. Once they were in a happy place, it was tough to tap into the same well of creativity.
“I guess I really didn’t have a whole lot to say, so the ideas just weren’t coming there for a while,” Hunt said Saturday on SiriusXM’s the Highway with Storme Warren and Buzz Brainard. He added that his songwriting skills got “rusty” after spending so much time touring; he said one “excuse” for the album delay was being on the road with Bryan last year — which was really just a matter of a dozen or so dates. Finally, last September, he had a writing breakthrough. “I forgot that it doesn’t just come to you, just sitting there in a room.”
Hunt’s co-writers have alluded to his perfectionist ways — particularly after the success of “Montevallo” and the accompanying string of hit singles (“Leave the Night On,” “Take Your Time,” “House Party,” “Break Up in a Small Town,” “Make You Miss Me”), the pressure is on to outdo himself. He and his co-writers worked painstakingly to fine-tune “Body Like a Back Road,” which wound up topping the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for 34 weeks. Now he has to aim even higher — and he’s insistent on co-writing every song.
“It’s tough, because I hear other artists putting out songs and there are a lot of great songs in Nashville written by other songwriters who do it constantly, 365 days a year,” Hunt said. “But I just feel like I have to write my own songs, and . . . it’s tougher to churn them out as quickly as some other artists who may be getting songs from the songwriters in town.”
Though Hunt has experienced backlash from fans of traditional country music, he made a point of covering old-school favorites at Stagecoach. "The music our generation makes is a lot different than what our folks listened to," he said, as he brought out rising star Luke Combs to duet on Brooks & Dunn's "Brand New Man," which he followed withWaylon Jennings's' "Belle of the Ball." "It's important we celebrate people who come before us."
Earlier, as SiriusXM’s Warren and Brainard peppered Hunt with questions (“When are we going to get new music?” . . . “Is there a timeline?”), he did offer a few concrete details: He’s been focusing on songwriting since last fall and he hopes to head into this recording studio this summer. He purposefully scheduled only two more concerts for 2019 so he can concentrate on this plan.
“I made it a point this year,” Hunt explained. “I said, ‘Look, I’m going to play three shows and I’m going to get this record done, come hell or high water.”