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Sam Hunt plays down-home diplomat of edgy country music

Sam Hunt plays down-home diplomat even as his debut 'Montevallo' country album lands him in edgy territory

Clarity can take a backseat to diplomacy when Sam Hunt, one of country music's edgiest young stars, talks about his relationship with Nashville.

"There's such a strong community element in country — it's like a family," he said recently. "So I don't want to do anything that can come off, even if I'm not intentionally doing it, as giving the perception that I'm trying to abandon that family." Told his twisted language was making him sound a bit like a politician, Hunt chuckled knowingly.

"But at the same time," he added, "I would never want to stay at the expense of the music."

Hunt maintains that delicate balance more artfully on his debut album, "Montevallo." Released in October, it expands the sound of modern country with twangy guitars over sleek R&B grooves and a unique vocal approach that mixes singing with speaking in a way that flirts with rapping.

In his lyrics too, Hunt tweaks established formulas, laying out a vision of masculinity more nuanced than the rowdy bro-think embodied in hits such as Luke Bryan's "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" and "Cruise" by Florida Georgia Line.

Yet "Montevallo" hardly skimps on the kind of rural signifiers that make many popular country songs feel like lifestyle accessories. "Snapbacks and Levi jeans / PBR and burned CDs," Hunt sings in his deep Georgia drawl in "Raised On It."

And for all his creative risk-taking, the 30-year-old singer has connected with Nashville's core audience: Last year, "Montevallo" topped Billboard's country album chart the same week Hunt's song "Leave the Night On" reached No. 1 on the singles chart. On Thursday he'll kick off a U.S. tour with a sold-out show at the Troubadour.

"I love what Sam is doing," said Clay Hunnicutt, who helps oversee national programming for iHeartMedia, the radio giant formerly known as Clear Channel. "We've got over 90 country programmers, and when they're all calling me saying, 'Hey, have you heard this?' that's when you know you've got something special."

That something took a while to develop. Hunt, a highly rated college football player, moved to Nashville to pursue his other passion after a shot at the NFL fizzled. He began collaborating with other songwriters but felt even less satisfied with the results than he was with the "amateurish" material he'd brought with him from home.

"The music had lost that personal touch," Hunt said over coffee in Hollywood, his black T-shirt matching his carefully ripped black pants.

But then the singer met Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, two songwriters finding success with slightly left-of-center tunes for stars such as Miranda Lambert and Chris Young.

McAnally, Hunt said, persuaded him to focus on his more idiosyncratic ideas — "the bastardized things that didn't really have a home in Nashville."

Together the three wrote "Come Over," a sensual ballad that Kenny Chesney took to No. 1 on the country chart in 2012.

Bolstered by that win, Hunt started stockpiling songs for his own album, one he hadn't actually been signed by a record label to make. No matter: In 2013, taking a cue from Internet-savvy rappers, he released what he called a "mix-tape" of his songs online. Reaction was strong.

"There's a system in place in Nashville, and for a long time I was trapped in this idea that the only way to do it was to come to town, get a record deal and do it the way they say," Hunt recalled. "And that system works. But it caters to a specific kind of artist, and I didn't necessarily fit that mold."

MCA Nashville eventually signed the singer based on the buzz he'd created. But McAnally — who co-produced "Montevallo" and wrote several of its songs with Hunt and Osborne — said the stakes of a major-label deal didn't temper Hunt's determination to carve out his own space.

"He wasn't asking for permission," McAnally said. "He wasn't going to the label or the radio powers-that-be and asking, 'What do you think of this?' It was, 'Here's who I am.'"

You can hear that in tracks such as "Break Up in a Small Town," with its spacey synth tones, and Hunt's current single, "Take Your Time," in which the singer assures the woman he's trying to pick up at a bar, "I don't wanna steal your freedom." Then there's "Single for the Summer," a would-be party song that ends up a sort of meditation on loneliness.

"I just wanted to go down some roads that I didn't hear a lot of people going down," said Hunt, who'd come to Los Angeles last week to perform "Take Your Time" on "Ellen."

Given the electronic textures in his music — not to mention his Abercrombie-model looks — it seems natural to wonder if some of those roads might lead to pop listeners, perhaps those who so happily received that other Nashville disrupter, Taylor Swift, after she declared her departure from country.

Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville (which includes MCA), struck an almost proprietary note when asked if she had plans to market Hunt's music to pop listeners.

"We are happy to have Sam Hunt fans wherever they come from or however they are exposed to his music," she said in an email. But, she added, "Sam is very clear that country music is where he belongs and what he feels most connected to."

Ever the diplomat, Hunt insisted he doesn't really think about stepping into the pop world, even as he acknowledged that he "had to fight so much over the last two years to help people understand where I was coming from."

But they listened, he added with a grin. His idea of country music is being heard.

"You think about the artists I look at as icons and you assume they were instantly embraced," he said. "That's usually not the case. In reality they had to overcome a lot of noes to get where they wanted to be."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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