We chatted with Georgia singer-songwriter Sam Hunt, 29 — whose penned hits for the likes of Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney, and now has a No. 1 single under his own belt buckle –for this week’s issue. Full of stories and thoughtful answers, we thought we’d put the rest of the chat up here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where are you right now?
SAM HUNT: I’m on the back of the bus – we’re riding to New York. We got a pretty long haul.
Where are you driving from?
Nashville. We just left about an hour ago. Some people don’t like long bus rides but I love them. There’s sort of a sense of solitude. Once you travel on this bus so much you get comfortable here, so it’s sort of like sitting at home.
The first single off your new debut album, Montevallo, “Leave the Night On,” went platinum. Did it feel like a hit when you wrote it?
I thought it was a song that could do well. But truthfully, it wasn’t my first choice, because it had been so long since I had written it, I had lost a little bit of perspective. There are a lot of songs that are themed in a similar way, and I wanted to put something out that was unique. Fortunately, after having it out and hearing it, people did catch onto the nuances of the song that separate it from other songs that maybe have similar themes and it worked out.
When did you start realizing the sort of steam it was gathering?
When I started to notice that the people that were coming out to see us play live – because we were touring pretty heavy this summer – the number of people there singing that song back was growing pretty fast. I don’t really have a chance to listen to the radio a lot and truthfully, I’ve only heard it on [there] one time, but I knew it must be gaining steam if more people were hearing about the song and learning it and coming to the shows.
It’s a little weird when radio stops being a regular thing in life…
Yea when I was a lot younger I always had the radio and now I’m rarely in the car. And personally, when it comes to “Leave the Night On” or whatever it is, I didn’t really like to pay attention too much to how well it’s doing. I just, I don’t know why. Just superstition or whatever it is but I didn’t mind not hearing it.
You got your start as a songwriter – what’s different about writing songs for yourself versus other performers?
I make sure to spend a lot more time making sure that I’m saying lyrically what I would say personally, I guess, as the artist. A lot of times in a songwriting session, if I’m not specifically thinking about myself – which, usually now, for the most part I’m always doing that – but in the past there have been times when good lyrics may come out that I wouldn’t necessarily say or that I don’t feel like represent me as a person or an artist I might go with it for the sake of that specific song but now I make sure that the ideas and lyrics and stories and experiences all represent me in an honest way.
That’s a little trickier you have to dig a little more…
Yeah, it’s easier and it’s harder. It’s easier because you just can look into your own life and be a little more personal with the songwriting. But its tougher because a lot of times a good idea might come up, but it doesn’t represent me so I have to pass on it and keep digging.
How did you get your foot in the door in the Nashville-songwriting community and partner up with Shane [McAnally]?
Well, Shane came back to town – he had gone to LA — about the same time I moved to town. When I met him I was pretty frustrated with my songwriting experience and just not being able to really find, in the co-writing world, anybody that I really hit it off with as an artist. I had had maybe a song or two recorded by some young guys that never ended up panning out with whichever labels they were on but the second time I wrote with Shane we wrote “Come Over” and that was the first song recorded by a major recording artist [Kenny Chesney].
And the biggest thing, it’s about the relationship I started with Shane and his willingness to push the boundaries and try some things that were a little more forward than what was going on the current radio.
When you two are writing, are you purposely ‘pushing boundaries.’, or are you just making the songs you want and that’s just what people say about them?
It wasn’t intentional. When I met Shane and a couple of the guys, I finally felt free to write and come in with ideas and spend time stylistically on songs and really I didn’t really think too much about whether or not they fit in this genre. Before, that was all I thought about when I was co-writing.
You know, when you’re batting around ideas people say, “You can’t say that,” or “You can’t do this,” or “That’s too much of this, too little of this…” It’s just all these rules that you use to make sure you stay inside the commercial genre and that was what I finally broke out of with Shane.
As a result, there’s been a lot of discussion about the genre of the music you make. Can you talk a little bit about the other influences that come through on a lot of tracks?
I’ve always really liked the rhythm element of songs. So, the drums or the sound of the kick drums or the snare and the percussion — that’s something that we experiment with a little bit on this record. Traditionally, in country, there’s a drum kit and there’s a variation to the sound but it’s more subtle than what we did on this record. I wanted to use the drums as an instrument that had a pretty wide range of sounds so that one kick drum sounded this way one and the other kick drum in a different song makes it sound completely different. And, that I think, when people hear that, they don’t think “country.”
So I think that’s probably the element that throws people off the most but if you take that away and just put the regular drum and just some of the more traditional sounds, I feel like they’re all country songs lyrically. They’re just stories about country life.
So what makes a country song is that there’s a linear structure to the story being told?
Yea, that’s what I hang my definition onto. I think of a song in terms of lyrics and stories and that’s what keeps it country for me.
You’ve been associated with ‘bro-country’ – does that term get under your skin?
That’s something that conveniently was becoming popular when I came along – this little “bro-country” sub-genre and I don’t really know the criteria for what decides whether or not you’re in that little thing or not. I don’t know if the phrase originally was meant to be derogatory but it’s turned into that. It’s sort of a snobby thing to say. You know, I think some people enjoy being above whatever “bro-country” is.
If whoever is judging music — including mine — as that, I don’t think they’re listening really closely to the songs and the lyrics.
Switching gears a little bit – prior to a music career you had an athletic one. What have you carried over from that discipline to this one?
First off, just learning how to connect the dots between hard work and success and having experienced that through the time I spent working in football and the success I had. That’s more of a life lesson – you could apply that to anything you do. But a lot of the lessons that are taught in football will promote success in anything you get into after football, for me it just happens to be music. Being disciplined. Good character. Trying to do the right thing, and working hard. That’s been probably the biggest thing.
I played quarterback and it was a leadership position and even though I’m doing a solo thing now, a lot of my success is a part of assembling this team of people who are really, really talented and their position doesn’t put them out front the way mine does, but it’s still a team effort.
Does musical talent run in your family?
Not that I know of. But my grandfather was a storyteller. He would take us out dove hunting and we’d get out there before the legal time that we could start shooting and he would tell us stories and we’d sit around, all the men and boys, and listen, hang out and talk.
You don’t have a typical country-star resume. You were a philosophy major for a while and a star football player and NFL hopeful in college. We’re your parents worried when you headed to Nashville?
[Laughs] I’m sure they were as any parent is as their child is in that transition from school to adulthood. But they had enough faith in me just from being around me so much and knowing I wasn’t too troublesome that I would figure it out one way or the other.
You’ve gained fame pretty quickly. What’s been your craziest fan experience?
I’m conflicted about the lyric tattoo thing. I feel like that’s a lifetime decision and I always feel like, “I hope you don’t regret this a couple years from now when you get tired of that song.” but if somebody connects at that level to the music and it brings them some fulfillment, even though I might not understand it completely, I guess it’s okay.
Have you had any big ‘a-ha’ moment where you really realize this is all ‘happening’?
That happens on a day-to-day basis and it doesn’t really sink in. When certain things happen that open my eyes to the level of reach that we’ve had so far. I don’t know, I just can’t wrap my head around it and then when something happens the next day it hits me just as hard.
You now have a whole new platform – do any new goals come with that? Maybe branching into other areas of entertainment or even music genres?
Nothing from an entertainment standpoint, I’ll see where it all goes. It’s more to use the influence to personally influence people outside of the music. I want the music to do the majority of the talking but if the music earns an open ear in the future – although I don’t have a message that I’m preaching today – I just hope I can use that pedestal to do good for people, outside of the songs for themselves.