Given the amount of country music being produced around the world, it’s impossible to keep up with it all, especially when you’re not working on it full time. I’m reliant on press releases and other industry information to let me know what’s being released, and the information skews Australian. Lately, I’ve been receiving more emails and PR from the northern hemisphere. In 2014, however, I wasn’t getting that much. So that’s the reason, I think, that the release of American artist Sam Hunt‘s Montevallo passed me by. I’ve searched my email history and I can’t find anything about it (and I tend to keep all the press releases). So it was a surprise to come across an article on Vulture recently that said, in short, that Sam Hunt is ‘the biggest star you’re not listening to’. I couldn’t believe I’d missed him – although the article essentially says that he hasn’t been given the amount of attention he should, especially as his latest (non-album) single, ‘Body Like a Back Road’ is, as the article says, one of the most successful country crossover songs of the past few years.
Hunt’s sound is far from traditional country. But it’s not even country rock or country pop. It draws on country traditions and sounds, certainly, but Hunt weaves in whatever suits the song. Parts of songs are spoken word, some of the sound is R&B, some of it is gloriously constructed pop. Hunt has written songs for other artists – like Keith Urban, and Montevallo‘s ‘Cop Car’ appears on Urban’s Ripcord – and also writes for himself. He’s not a novice. Nor is he playing with genres for the fun of it. The inescapable conclusion when listening to Montevallo is that the songs evolve as they need to, and as he needs them to, and they have arrived sounding perfectly right. That’s the work of someone who is confident in what he’s doing and also curious about he’ll discover along the way.
What’s surprised me the most about this album, especially since it’s taken me three years to find it, is that it’s pretty much perfect. It is not for the Americana or traditional country purist, but nor does it necessarily exclude those listeners. It’s not bro country, but it wouldn’t exclude that audience either. Where it differs from bro country is that when Hunt sings about having a good time, as on ‘Leave the Night On’ and ‘Raised On It’, he doesn’t sound like he’s trying to wring every ounce of fun out of the song in his drive to prove that he is really, sincerely having fun. These are not get-drunk-and-party songs – these are songs that evoke common experiences. Every word sounds true, not because he’s overworking the sentiment but because every note sounds effortless. That’s the most country thing about the album: the authenticity that is quite clearly behind the writing and the singing of these songs.
There’s another quality that distinguishes Hunt’s work from some other (American) country rock: the other people who are mentioned in his songs, whether they are romantic interests or police officers or friends, aren’t targets. There’s no sense of Hunt – or his narrator, if it’s not him – trying to get anything or game anyone. The closest he comes is on the opening track, ‘Take Your Time’, and even that is stretching it. These are the songs of someone who seems to be genuinely interested in people and how they live, and not overly interested in how he lives relative to them. That suggests that he’s a natural storyteller who doesn’t have an agenda when it comes to his subjects.
And there’s another quality still to this music – something that is not ordinarily associated with country music: Hunt’s sound is seductive. There is proof laced throughout the album but the core of it is in the bridge of ‘Ex to See’ when the narrator decides to turn the narrative around. In those few bars there’s understanding and self-awareness, power and generosity, and the polite way of summing that up is to say that it’s seductive. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I’ve listened to that song a lot and I hear it every time. It pops up elsewhere too, and in large part it’s to do with how assured the sound is.
Musically, the album is incredibly entertaining, especially if you love pop music – that is, the catchy, sing-along, toe-tapping part of pop that makes the great songs memorable. Hunt has excellent pop sensibilities to go along with his country background, and he also has a neat way of tying up a lyric so that it’s clever without being condescending. I was prepared to think of these songs as lightweight confections but I can’t get them out of my head.
In short: it’s a brilliant album. But I don’t regret missing it three years ago because I’m not sure I would have appreciated it three years ago. I hadn’t heard as much country rock then and I couldn’t have put it in its context, and also realised that it has its own context. Hunt is not so much pushing boundaries and overstepping bounds as creating music that feels true to him and finding the connection with audiences accordingly. He’s also decided not to rush out a new album, instead releasing singles as they’re ready. That will help satisfy the younger fans who, apparently, are turning out in droves to his shows. He may be the future of country, or of pop, or of something entirely in its own category. If you’re at all curious about new music the way I am, this album is worth listening to – and if you simply love to get hold of a great collection of catchy songs that dig in deeper each time you hear them, the album is a pleasure. Not a guilty one or a shallow one or a passing one: just pure pleasure.