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Sam Hunt Is the Future of Country Music

The Nashville superstar has managed to cultivate bro-country success and “Real Country” respect. The question is: Can he have both at the same time?

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. For the next several days, we’re celebrating — and reporting on — the richness of the region. You’ll find stories from all over the map, exploring topics such as the enduring legacy of Confederate monuments in Richmond and Montgomery, the evolution of Charleston barbecue, and the intersection of faith and football in Lubbock. We’re also ranking the best Southern rap albums, imagining the André 3000 mixtape we all deserve, and arguing about what even constitutes the South anymore. In the words of two great Southerners, nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.

I’d like to start by congratulating ludicrously suave bro-country superstar Sam Hunt, whose new single, “Body Like a Back Road,” has broken the record for most weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. The previous record, held by markedly less suave bro-country superstars Florida Georgia Line and their breakout hit “Cruise,” was 24 weeks; as of Friday, Hunt’s up to 29. Congratulations, Sam.

I’d like to continue by drawing your attention to this “dizzy bat race” between two fans at a Quad Cities River Bandits game. This video has no sound; “Body Like a Back Road” would make a fine soundtrack. Not a compliment.

That’s Florida Georgia Line in blue on the left, and Sam Hunt in red on the right. (Metaphorically.) The Quad Cities River Bandits are the Class A affiliate of the Houston Astros, based in Davenport, Iowa; a “dizzy bat race,” as you may have gathered, is when you put your forehead on a bat and spin around a bunch of times and then try to run in a straight line.

Which is to say, the fact Sam Hunt has topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for a solid half-year with a C+ trifle is less a coronation than an indictment of Hunt’s wan competition.

The mainstream country conveyor belt requires artists to run a silly race that demeans the runners to the great amusement, but not so much the enrichment, of the spectators. Hunt is a promising young superstar, a cocky and nervy and thrillingly polarizing synthesis of rap and pop and Actual Country and What Passes for Actual Country Nowadays. He’ll be fine. The state of the kingdom he has inherited is another matter entirely.

Bottom line: good artist finds great success with bad song. “Body Like a Back Road” is an expert bit of shameless pandering, giving the people exactly what they want and none of what they need. It’s engineered to top as many vapid Spotify playlists as possible, especially those with “Chillin’” somewhere in the title. He’s way better than this. Here’s proof.

Sam Hunt was born in Cedartown, Georgia; he first rose to prominence as a minor college football star, playing quarterback for Middle Tennessee State and then UAB. He worked out for the Kansas City Chiefs, but nothing came of it; he moved to Nashville instead, and soon Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban were singing songs he’d cowritten.

His solo debut, 2014’s Montevallo, was an unqualified smash that unveiled a fully formed and irresistible persona: half nimble talk-rapper, half syrupy crooner, all rogue-ish charmer. His football career, however modest, makes a huge difference: As a pop star, he has the priceless macho-affable charm of a benevolent jock shocking everyone by grabbing an acoustic guitar and hijacking the high school talent show. Channing Tatum buys you a drink, is the gist. But everyone immediately pointed out a more apt comparison; in fact, on the sublime “Break Up in a Small Town,” Hunt made it himself:

She’s so far gone, but she didn’t go far
She was over me before the grass grew back where she used to park her car
She’s leaving those same marks in someone else’s yard
In someone else’s arms, right down the road

The grass marks are the Actual Country part, for the record: That is a legitimately striking, and classic, and weirdly beautiful image. But “so far gone” is, yes, the Drake part. Comparing Sam Hunt and Aubrey Graham is a very popular pastime, and was long before Hunt covered Drake’s “Marvin’s Room” while onstage at the Fader Fort. Both men have helped revolutionize their genres by broadening, and hybridizing, and above all sensitizing them. Stylistically, “Break Up in a Small Town” almost qualifies as a mashup: Setting aside the talk-rap aspect, the very mild EDM drop on the chorus can be read as a chewing-tobacco antecedent to the Chainsmokers. But it’s the Sad, Vulnerable Hunk aura that puts the song over, and the rest of Hunt’s songs, too.

Montevallo had multiple smash hits: driving songs (“Leave the Night On”), bar-pickup songs (“Take Your Time”), house-party songs (“House Party,” with its dopey turntable squiggles). But “Cop Car” is the record’s other Actual Country peak—that’s the one Keith Urban cut in 2013. But Hunt’s version is a little quieter, sparer, and sweeter, and the storytelling zeal in its detail—“I fell in love in the back of a cop car,” ends the chorus—mixes perfectly with Hunt’s plainspoken delivery:

Side by side and locked in tight
They were taking their time, but we didn’t mind
We talked
And we laughed
We sat real close
By the time they let us go
I was already gone

Perfect. That’s a song worthy of Jason Isbell, or Sturgill Simpson, or any of the other Real Country Music saviors country radio steadfastly ignores. If bro-country is truly unkillable, and only a precious few prestige artists like Chris Stapleton stumble into Nashville’s embrace, then Sam Hunt seemed to be the best-case scenario for the genre’s biggest hitmaker. Shallow enough for fame, but deep enough to transcend it.

“Body Like a Back Road” is a huge step backward, unimaginative from the listless back-porch riff to the avalanche of lyrical clichés unleashed by the title alone. Effort-wise, think the Cavs playing the Bucks, not the Cavs playing the Warriors. Hunt’s coasting. He wrote and recorded the whole song while flat on his back. You could mistake him for 15 other anonymous country-radio strivers; if you let YouTube autoplay other videos after this song, you’ll hear dozens of guileless tunes just like it from dozens of deeply, justifiably unfamous bros. Hunt is not, traditionally, a “lowest common denominator” guy, but no good can come from the revelation that he can dominate country music even if he acts like one. He needs a worthy adversary, an archenemy. But he won’t find one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, which at present is one great Miranda Lambert song and a 49-way tie for last.

Lambasting mainstream country for its shopworn “pickup truck on a back road” clichés long ago calcified into a cliché itself, but goodness gracious, this list is a turkey shoot. You have your soft-rock crossover artists vying for an Ellen invite (Thomas Rhett), your witless George Strait throwbacks (Midland), your harmless Lumineers-esque gymnasium-folk saps (Lanco). Rowdy newcomer Luke Combs shows a little spark and does what he can with a song literally titled “When It Rains It Pours.” But otherwise you’re left clinging to a bouncy but cloying goof like “No Such Thing As a Broken Heart” by the band Old Dominion, who have a cheesy “Barenaked Ladies of Country” vibe and a terrible design aesthetic.

Moreover, the chart’s first solo female entry rings in at no. 17 (Carly Pearce’s “Every Little Thing”); the first and possibly only unambiguously great song on the whole chart—Miranda Lambert’s skeletal and haunting “Tin Man”—is stranded at no. 27. Lambert is an especially worrisome case. She’s an industry-beloved, award-lavished veteran superstar, and her stoic and sleek 2016 double album, The Weight of These Wings, was worthy of the legend. But despite going platinum, it yielded no big singles, which Rolling Stone flagged as further proof of country radio’s inherent sexism.

It’s the same disease that compelled some industry dope to belittle female artists as “the tomatoes of our salad” back in 2015. “Saladgate” constituted a major industry scandal, but secretly, the sickest burn of all in that image is the notion that if the women are the tomatoes, the men are merely … lettuce. Roughage. Tasteless in the culinary sense. Lambert’s Weight of These Wings dominated the 2016 version of alt-weekly Nashville Scene’s annual critics poll, as well it should’ve. But that rapture, coupled with country radio’s relative indifference, suggested a disturbing shift in her target audience. The utopian ideal is that a critical darling finally reaches heights so transcendent that the bland old Nashville machine has no choice but to take notice. But it’s now more common that a radio superstar gets so prestigious, so innovative, so sublimely singular that she crosses over the other way, from mainstream adulation to something intensified but more niche.

Sam Hunt, at his best, might help solve this conundrum, might make prestige-quality work a mass-market affair again. But “Body LIke a Back Road” is far from his his best work: The whole of Montevallo shows more spark, more innovation, more dissatisfaction with the status quo. And as far back as April, the song’s massive success had helped convince Hunt to be more of a “singles guy,” with no release date for a full-length Montevallo follow-up yet in sight. "I try to make music that's relevant to my life and relatable to the culture I live in," Hunt told Billboard. "Putting out music as it's made, versus holding it until an album's finished, allows me to be more timely and maintain balance." More importantly, not only does this coup suggest he doesn’t have to put out anything better, it suggests he doesn’t have to put out anything else at all.

In January, Hunt released a song called “Drinkin’ Too Much,” a painfully intimate post-breakup acoustic sketch that sounds more like Drake’s “Marvin’s Room” than Hunt’s actual cover of “Marvin’s Room.” Delivered in that now-familiar confessional lilt, the lyrics immediately felt wrong, in an overly personal and morally invasive sort of way: “I know you want your privacy / And you’ve got nothing to say to me / But I wish you’d let me pay off your student loans / With these songs you gave to me.” Outro:

Hannah Lee, I’m on my way to you
I don’t know what I’ma say to you
But I know there ain’t no way we’re through

Hannah Lee Fowler is now Sam Hunt’s wife. This ripped-from-my-own-headlines approach to songwriting is not sustainable, or even advisable at all. He of all people can find ways to break molds without turning total civilians into unwilling celebrities, a la another country trailblazer we know. But at least “Drinkin’ Too Much” is a choice, and a bold one, far bolder than the song that just handed Hunt a record-breaking Billboard coup. Hunt is on tour right now, and has taken to closing his set with a “Break Up in a Small Town”–“Drinkin’ Too Much” mashup. He’s got range. He’s got options. LIke it or not, he’s probably the future of country music. Which means he’ll decide how retrograde the future of country music turns out to be.