Sam Hunt played football in college, and thought he might make a career of it.
But after a workout with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Georgia native decided to doff his helmet, strap on a guitar, and head to Music City to try his luck as a singer-songwriter.
“It’s a lot healthier, and you can sleep in in the morning,” Hunt says with a laugh of his career change of heart, by phone from his home in Nashville.
Hunt first broke through in the country world as a songwriter, co-penning Kenny Chesney’s sultry 2012 chart topper “Come Over” with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, and Keith Urban’s 2014 top 10 hit “Cop Car” with Zach Crowell and Matt Jenkins.
Coming to music later than some — he didn’t start playing guitar and writing songs until college — Hunt was amazed that he was able to land cuts with such big stars.
“I think that helped me focus and be a little more disciplined,” he says of his late entry to the game. He credits his athletic work ethic for driving him to be diligent about learning his new craft. “There are so many great musicians and artists here who have been playing their whole lives, so I felt like I was so far behind the curve that I needed to catch up.”
It is safe to say that Hunt has caught up. “Montevallo,” his recently released debut album as a performer, hit No. 1 on the country charts — thanks in large part to laid-back single “Leave the Night On,” which also hit No. 1. The success happened so quickly that Hunt had to upgrade his first headlining show in Boston from the Paradise to the House of Blues, where he will play to a sold-out crowd on Feb. 12.
“Montevallo” is notable for a number of reasons, not least the boundaries past which Hunt pushes the term country, which he chalks up to geography.
“I don’t really know that I’m aware of a lot of the inspiration and influence that I’m under, because I didn’t have an extensive musically educational upbringing,” says Hunt of parents who weren’t record collectors, as well as his own focus on sports. “I was really only around country music on the radio, and I think because I grew up so close to Atlanta, and R&B was such a big part of that culture, by proximity I think a lot of that music influenced me without knowing it.”
While “Leave the Night On” fits comfortably in the current easy-breezy party trend at country radio, and banjos and steel guitars dot the album’s sonic landscape, Hunt takes the music to decidedly more pop, R&B, and dance-music places on “Montevallo,” with loops, synths, and rhythm tracks on songs like “Take Your Time” and “Single for the Summer.”
He credits coproducers-writers McAnally and Crowell with helping to craft his sound. “I love all kinds of music, and I would write really traditional country songs and songs that were just really out there, that didn’t sound country at all, and everything in between,” says Hunt. “There’s a sweet spot I was able to find working with those guys, where I was able to combine a lot of those elements instead of having to pick one direction.”
“I do know that people comment on [websites] ‘This isn’t country’,” says McAnally, who has a clutch of hits to his credit, including “Mama’s Broken Heart” by Miranda Lambert and “Downtown” by Lady Antebellum, and who co-wrote four of the tracks on “Montevallo,” including “Leave the Night On.”
“I think again, though, that when people listen to it, it doesn’t take long for people to say ‘I don’t care if it’s not country,’” he continues. Hunt, he says, “wasn’t specific about the genre. He made a record without people standing over him and telling him what was and what wasn’t country. He just made a record that sounded right to him. At the end of the day, they can say whatever they want about the production; it’s based in real songs, and that is what country music is about.”
Hunt knows that his envelope-pushing doesn’t sit well with some country music fans. “The key to me is being different not for the sake of being different, but being the most authentic version of what you do,” he says. “And definitely it takes a willingness to be different, because there was resistance for me early on, and I feel like that’s usually the case when there’s a certain paradigm or trend happening and you step outside of that.”
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.