NASHVILLE — Every time country and hip-hop collide, the Sam Hunt bat-signal goes up. So it was no surprise that last month Hunt found himself in the home studio of his longtime producer Zach Crowell, spitballing melodies and lyrics with the young Atlanta singer-rapper Breland, who was then just a couple of weeks into the viral spread of his country-rap thumper “My Truck.”
For Breland, working with Hunt was an immediate stamp of Nashville approval. For Hunt, it was a rare opportunity to collaborate with someone who approached the country-rap divide from the other side.
After a few days of sessions, they were winding down over Chinese food. Hunt told Breland that “My Truck” reminded him of “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down),” the 1981 Hank Williams Jr. chestnut. They discussed old Drake songs, and how hip-hop beefs have evolved over the years. Hunt, a methodical songwriter, marveled at how quickly and freely Breland improvised melodic lines.
The following day, Hunt — tall, broad and gentle, like a considerate bear — was driving around Nashville in his black GMC Denali, sipping cold coffee and detailing his restless craving to innovate. “I’m always feeling like I’m not quite reaching my potential,” he said. “And so that’s kind of what I’m searching for more than anything.”
Hunt, 35, has long been established as the most progressive and musically polyglot mainstream performer in Nashville. Working with artists like Breland, he said, provides crucial injections of creative energy, and highlights new pathways that aren’t always open to country artists: “I think now more than ever, if you’re somebody who has interest in doing different stylistic things, you can do both without people being confused as to, you know, which one is you.”
The night before, while they were chatting in the studio with ESPN on in the background, “My Truck” was played on the channel. This moment of mainstream acknowledgment was a reminder that country coexisting with hip-hop, still an outlier idea when Hunt first came to Nashville a decade ago, was now on the verge of becoming utterly normal.
But even though the music world caught up to Hunt, much has changed since his triple-platinum 2014 debut, “Montevallo.” Just as Hunt was reaching the peak of his breakthrough, he found himself miserable. Before embarking on his career, he’d split from Hannah Lee Fowler, the love of his life, choosing his career over her. (“Montevallo” is named after her hometown.)
After two years of nonstop touring and promotion for that album, a stretch that put him squarely in Nashville’s top tier and set him up for a wider breakout, he more or less hit eject. Rather than continue his career at a breakneck pace, he tried to win Fowler back, and succeeded. Though Hunt chipped away at new music — initial interviews for this story took place in 2017 — and he spent time experimenting with pop and hip-hop producers, he didn’t fully begin work on his follow-up album, “Southside,” until last year.
“Southside,” due in early April, will arrive into a familiar musical world, one Hunt helped build the foundation for. The most vital pop hit of last year was Lil Nas X’s supernova “Old Town Road,” a country-rap novelty that had improbable legs. And Nashville has come to accept some of the hip-hop-influenced choices Hunt popularized.
But even in this environment, Hunt’s sound remains trademark. “Southside” is unflashily impressive, containing some of his riskiest work and also some of his most traditional. It is, depending on your angle, a reminder that Hunt is a Nashville provocateur, or that Hunt is a Nashville provocateur who can write better songs than almost everyone he’s trying to provoke. “He’s pushing at opposite ends of the spectrum at the same rate of speed,” said Cindy Mabe, the president of Universal Music Group Nashville.
The jolting “That Ain’t Beautiful” features his signature talk-rapping and his seamless switching between speaking and singing. “Hard to Forget,” with its recurring Webb Pierce sample and boom-bap drums, is pure “Yo! Brother, Where Art Thou?” “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90’s” takes the gratuitously shaggy Nashville party songs of the last decade and reframes them as casual conversation, with a chorus that’s sung loosely and convincingly, as if Hunt just thought of the joke. “Nothing Lasts Forever” is a sensual R&B plea, and “Let It Down” has some of the pluck of 1990s pop-country.
But there is a seriousness to this album, too, shaped in part by the saga of Hunt and Fowler. “She was under the impression, and I had sure expressed this to her at some point, that she was the number one priority. I would choose her over everything,” he said of the time before his rise, when he set out in a van to give his performing career a shot. “And then it sort of turned around and I said, actually, I want to choose this.”
They’d been in sporadic communication over the years when he was in the Nashville bubble of fame, but she’d moved on. When Hunt sought her out, she was living in Hawaii, and he flew there several times to prove his dedication.
“I had made myself answer the question, you know, if it comes down to it, are you willing to retire? Give all this up?” Hunt said. “I did commit to that.” After he convinced Fowler, they reunited and got engaged.
Unofficially, the beginning of Hunt’s second career phase came on the New Year’s Eve that rang in 2017. That night, he was set to release “Drinkin’ Too Much,” a melancholic apology for a life gone awry in the vein of Drake’s “Marvin’s Room.” It was a startling hard reset for someone on an accelerated path to country stardom. Before uploading it to SoundCloud — itself an unusual choice for a major label country artist — he and Fowler went to Crowell’s studio. Fowler, who is a nurse, not a professional musician, sat down at a keyboard and, with Hunt’s arms around her, played a bit of the traditional hymn “How Great Thou Art.” Crowell recorded it, appended it to the end of the song and uploaded it to the world.
“We started writing that song before they were back together,” Crowell recalled. “For her to then join the process and be there when we finished was very spiritual.” He added, “Jesus was in the room, I promise.”
Just how intense had the prior years been? For some idea, check the “Southside” opener “2016,” a wrenching track about regret that’s phenomenally structured, damp with sadness and as classic a country song Hunt has ever recorded.
I’d put the whiskey back in the bottle
Put the smoke back in the joint
Look up at the sky and say, “OK OK OK, think you made your point”
I’d cover up the pool at Skymont
I’d take some girls out of my phone
Give the night life back to Nashville, one night at a time ’til all the regret’s gone
Being able to write a song like that required Hunt to recuse himself from the hamster-wheel of Nashville fame. “Do I want to live in this bubble for 10 to 20 years?” he recalled thinking, likening his “existential” struggle to King Solomon in Ecclesiastes. “How is the talking about myself all the time, taking pictures of myself, being on these red carpets, going to these award shows, making money doing this thing — is that really benefiting anybody other than myself?” He found himself thinking about a life with Fowler, marriage, children: “Who do I want that kid’s dad to be?”
After reuniting with Fowler, he hit reset. He quit drinking (for around a year). They traveled the world. In April 2017, they got married. Two months later, he began his first headlining arena tour, with Fowler in tow.
Hunt wanted to show her what his life had become in the years without her. They were also trying to rebuild their relationship, and time for healing conversation proved scarce. “I know that wore on her,” he said. But Fowler kept Hunt honest, encouraging him to be more present in his day-to-day life, and more personal in his songwriting. “One of my biggest concerns was for her not to ever think that I was trying to exploit anything from her or our relationship,” he said, but “she likes to hear the person that she knows in the songs.”
Hunt was raised in Cedartown, a small town in northwest Georgia, around 60 miles from Atlanta — close enough to be influenced by the city, but also a world away. A touted quarterback — he was the starter at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2006 and 2007 — he grew up with both black and white friends, and his musical interests developed accordingly. In addition to country, he was raised on hip-hop, especially Southern rap, and R&B: 112, K-Ci & JoJo, Pressha’s timeless “Splackavellie.”
When Hunt first came to Nashville, he got shuffled into the deck of songwriters who are the city’s bedrock. But as someone with a more ambitious set of references, he found that work limiting. When he met Crowell, a Nashville songwriter and producer who’d cut his teeth making hip-hop beats for Southern rappers, they immediately clicked. In 2013, before Hunt signed a record deal, they released “Between the Pines,” a mixtape of country originals with hip-hop accents, some of which would later get repurposed for “Montevallo.”
At the time, Hunt wasn’t the only Nashville performer deploying hip-hop references, but he was by far the most comfortable; his fluency didn’t call attention to itself with of-the-second slang or overbearing beats. “Montevallo” (and “X2C,” the EP that preceded it) was the first album from Nashville to fully meet younger fans where they were already at — familiar with hip-hop’s textures and rhythms, and not flustered at all by its inclusion in country. It topped the Billboard country album chart, and included three No. 1 country hits (“Leave the Night On,” “Take Your Time,” “House Party”) and two No. 2 singles (“Break Up in a Small Town,” “Make You Miss Me”).
His profile grew quickly, which afforded him the opportunity to be more adventurous. In the years after “Montevallo,” he worked with producers far outside the Nashville comfort zone. He did some sessions with Diplo, and spent a couple of weeks trying to hone a sound with Charlie Handsome, who’s worked with Post Malone and Young Thug. Hunt even tried working with Murda Beatz, known for hits with Drake and 6ix9ine.
But he never quite found a sound he was comfortable with. “I think some things were outside the boundaries of my limitations as an artist,” he said. “Sometimes I get mixed up with what I’m a fan of and what is within the limits of my potential with what I do.”
So he waited for the right inspiration to strike. “I didn’t want to just chuck out a record that I wasn’t proud of just to maintain momentum,” he said. “The industry kind of looks at it like, you’ve got to be great to get in the game, and you’ve just got to be mediocre to stay. That’s not for me.”
Besides, others were infringing on his turf. The label president Mabe, who describes Hunt as one of Nashville’s first streaming success stories, said that his uniqueness made him a ripe target for copycats: “People come in the door right behind you trying to take your exact same lane.”
“Southside,” Hunt said, is the result of “leaning way back into something that was easier to accomplish than trying to stay out in front.” It includes the place-holder singles that he’s released over the last few years: “Body Like a Backroad” (which went to No. 1 on the Billboard country chart), “Downtown’s Dead” and “Kinfolks.” It also closes with “Drinkin’ Too Much,” bringing the era full circle.
Most of the new songs were written in three songwriting retreats over the last year. In the past, Hunt had written “from that single-guy perspective and the whole thing was kind of centered around that.” But then he got married. “It took me a minute to figure out, how do you know what to write about? I didn’t have anything to really say,” he said, and added, “I want to be free to play the parts.”
Hunt has largely settled down in the past two years; and though he spends many nights staying up to the wee hours watching bluegrass jam videos on YouTube, teaching himself the licks so he can play along, in November he was arrested in Nashville for driving under the influence.
“I don’t drink too much anymore,” Hunt said. “Typically a moment like that happens at the end of a rope for somebody. Like they’ve been going down a road and they all of a sudden hit bottom, whereas for me it was completely random.” His wife, he said, was vexed: “She’s with me every day, so she saw it, like, ‘What in the world? How in the heck did this happen?’”
A little more than a year ago, “Old Town Road” erupted from SoundCloud and TikTok into pop culture phosphorescence. That it wasn’t the first country-rap fusion — not by far — didn’t matter; it radically reset the terms of what was believed to be possible, and palatable, by millions.
Hunt watched the song’s explosion with admiration and a touch of regret. “To be honest, I was like, doggonit, somebody kind of has done it before I could get to it,” he said. “And it was like, well, shoot, now what? ’Cause anything you come after with and you look like you’re just trying to ride that thing. I was a little upset at myself for being conservative.”
A perfect, risky, possibly slightly outré blend of hip-hop and country was what he had been searching for during his explorations in 2017 and 2018. With Charlie Handsome in particular, he felt like there was potential unreached. “I felt like we could do it if we had time,” Hunt said. “I kind of had to step away from that a little bit because it wasn’t a sure thing that we were going to nail it. And it’s one of those things where you miss by an inch, you miss by a mile.”
Crowell, his longtime collaborator, knows that Hunt has still more appetite for experimentation in him. “I know deep down he has urges to do other stuff,” he said. “I don’t think he’s found the recipe quite yet.”
And so as sturdy and faithful as “Southside” is in the Hunt canon, it only reflects part of his ambition.
“I went as extreme as I could back then, but I felt like I can go even more,” he said. “I kind of wanted to know what the too-far was. I never found the cliff.”