After arriving on the scene in 2014 with one of the most successful and influential debuts of the last decade, Sam Hunt remains an enigma in country music.
His R&B and hip-hop inflected first album, Montevallo, went triple-Platinum, and also included four singles which together have earned 11 more Platinum distinctions. He followed that up with a massive, 6X Platinum smash in the grooving “Body Like a Back Road,” further cementing his status as a watershed artist in the format. But then, it was like he disappeared.
Even as “Body Like a Back Road” was ruling the charts in 2017, Hunt was rarely heard from – and even more rarely seen. Rumors swirled that due to personal problems and professional disillusionment he was quitting music, and what few remarks Hunt made in public only fanned those flames. Then a 2019 DUI seemed to confirm the Georgia-born hitmaker had lost his way. But now, six years after his first album, Hunt is back … and looking to make amends.
“I hope it’s like a phone call from a friend you haven’t heard from in a long time,” he tells Sounds Like Nashville of his sophomore set, titled Southside and due April 3. “Whether I have anything specific to say or not, it’s just kind of a call to say ‘Hey, I’m here. And I’d like to spend a little more time together, if you want.’”
Speaking about the project, the soft-spoken Hunt was open and forthcoming about the redemption journey he was still on – a story he admits found him burned out, and ready to walk away. After marrying his longtime sweetheart in 2017 (Hannah – who inspired much of Montevallo), Hunt explains he had been on the road for about four years straight, and knew his lifestyle would put a strain on the marriage – not to mention his desire to start a family.
“I definitely took a minute to figure out what I wanted to do with the next 10, 20 years of my life,” he says. “I had gotten a taste of what it was like to tour, make music and be on the road – away from your family for big chunks of time. While that was a blessing and such an opportunity, I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep my foot on the gas pedal for another 10 years.
“Looking at it from 19-year-old me, I would have been like ‘Are you crazy, man? Stay in it! Go, go, go!’” he continues. “But when you look up and two or three years have gone by, especially for a person like me who’s really family oriented … I never wanted to come across like I was ungrateful, but it’s hard to know what it’s like until you’re in it.”
Finding himself back home and back in a creative headspace for the first time in years, Hunt says he “got to a place where I just needed to write a record and not overthink it.” So starting about 12 months ago, he made that his mission.
What emerged were the 12 Southside tracks – a 50/50 mix of fresh material and already-released content. “Body Like a Back Road” finally finds an album home, as does the 2018 follow up “Downtown’s Dead” and the raw, real-life honesty of 2017’s “Drinkin’ Too Much.” Fans will also recognize Hunt’s recent Number One, “Kinfolks,” plus the acoustic R&B of “Sinning With You” and time-warping current single, “Hard to Forget.”
The rest are a mix of carefree fun and open-book confessionals – with a rangy fusion of sounds tailored to each one. Hunt titled the set Southside as a nod to the metaphorical place where rural and urban worlds collide, and the LP’s production reflects that. In fact, it features a more rootsy flavor than Montevallo overall, with more than a couple stripped down acoustic ballads delivered in Hunt’s famous talk-singing style.
“I didn’t want to make the record too slick, and a lot of the songs felt almost like rough drafts, so I wanted the record to feel like that, too,” he explains. “It was my first record in five years, and part of the reason for that might have been that I was overthinking it. … We would just start laying it down, and as soon as it got to a point when we liked it, we let it be.”
Fans of Hunt’s incredibly-personal songwriting – often coming off like the musical transcript of a therapy session – will find plenty to love, and plenty more detail about his private journey. The set begins with a melodic apology to Hannah titled “2016,” first unveiled during Nashville’s 2020 Country Radio Seminar. Built lean and vulnerable on acoustic guitar and vocals, it finds Hunt wishing he could give a tumultuous year back to the one he loves.
“I feel like I have talked around the story of that song in interviews, but that tells the story fully and gets it out of the way – like ‘Ok, this is what’s been going on the past few years. Here’s the song, and now we can move on.’” Hunt says. “It was like closing the chapter a little bit on these last few years.”
Meanwhile, current single “Hard to Forget” shows that Hunt can still have a good time. Featuring an instantly-recognizable sample of Webb Pierce’s 1953 hit, “There Stands the Glass,” it may be the natural successor to “Body Like a Back Road” – defined by head-bobbing beats and the casual ease of Hunt’s vocal.
“I had been trying to sample a song for a long time – but I had been picking songs from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and I just couldn’t make it work,” he says. “I was working with Luke Laird, and eventually he said ‘Man, I had this idea. Let me play if for you.’ He played it almost reluctantly, like he thought I might not like it, but I was blown away. It hit me like ‘This is what I’ve been looking for!’”
Other relatively-lighthearted moments include the vocally stacked “Young Once” and the 808-processed two-stepper, “Let It Down,” while “Breaking Up in the ‘90s” laments a too-connected culture which makes moving on harder than ever.
But it’s where Hunt pulls off his always-cool outer shell where Southside shines. He offers some tough-love wisdom on the ultra-specific “That Ain’t Beautiful,” and holds out hope for a brighter future in the moody “Nothing Lasts Forever.” Then, in the project-closing “Drinkin’ Too Much,” he offers one of the most unflattering and unflinching self-portraits of any artist in recent memory. It won’t ever top the radio charts, but it will leave a mark on listeners all the same … talk about three-chords-and-the-truth.
The song even features Hannah slowly plucking out the notes to “How Great Thou Art” on a piano as it ends, bringing the tumultuous journey Hunt began with “2016” to a close – hopefully for good.
“Just to have her energy on this record meant a lot,” he says. “I wanted to include both those songs, and it always felt like they should bookend the record. They’re two songs that tell the personal side of my story, and that piano at the end is kind of a nod to the spiritual influence on it, the decisions I’ve made over the last year. Things like choosing marriage over the single life, family as opposed to the lifestyle that comes along with the other route. Not that I was like drowning in sin or anything. It was just figuring out the right path for me, and following faith or God’s will, whatever you want to call it. That was an important part of the redemption that came along in my story.”