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Review: Sam Hunt chooses tradition over reinvention at Stagecoach

Review: Sam Hunt chooses tradition over reinvention at Stagecoach
Sam Hunt performs Saturday night at the Stagecoach country music festival in Indio. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Country music has always rewarded consistency and hard work. Every once in a while, it recognizes the value of invention as well.

Consider Sam Hunt, who headlined the second night of the annual Stagecoach festival in Indio on Saturday. Sandwiched between a Friday-night performance by Luke Bryan (who’s released six studio albums) and a scheduled Sunday-night closer by Jason Aldean (who’s put out eight), this hunky 34-year-old Georgia native was playing one of country music’s biggest stages on the strength of a single album.

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But what an album it was.

Released in 2014, “Montevallo” — named after a small town not far from where he played football at the University of Alabama in Birmingham — showcased Hunt’s effortless blend of country, hip-hop and R&B, with twangy guitars laid over slippery grooves and a vocal approach that lands somewhere between rapping and singing.

Hunt was hardly the first to combine those styles, but his success has sped country’s push into hip-hop rhythms, particularly in terms of singers’ cadences; sonically, today’s top 10 shares as much with Jay-Z as with Johnny Cash. Hunt’s breakout hit “Take Your Time,” a woke-bro power ballad about not wanting to steal a woman’s freedom, shook up country because it felt uniquely natural — inevitable, almost — in a way that resonated with young fans for whom genre divisions mean increasingly little.

“Montevallo” quickly vaulted Hunt to country’s A-list; indeed, the album’s success has kept him in the spotlight even without a follow-up — though “Body Like a Back Road,” his smash 2017 single, affirmed his fans’ clear appetite for more music.

But if Hunt himself has kept an oddly low profile of late, there’s no denying his having helped set the table for the current country-rap craze embodied by “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X’s viral hit that topped Billboard’s Hot 100 after earlier being removed from the trade magazine’s country chart.

Sam Hunt's music combines country, hip-hop and R&B.
Sam Hunt's music combines country, hip-hop and R&B. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

So you might’ve expected Hunt to use Stagecoach — his first gig in six months, and one that put him in front of tens of thousands of people at the Empire Polo Club — to reclaim his position at the center of a scene he did as much as anyone to shape.

Instead, he presented himself as something of a traditionalist.

Leading the sturdy four-piece road band he said he assembled shortly after he landed in Nashville, Tenn., about a decade ago, Hunt played a handsome version of Waylon Jennings’ “Belle of the Ball.” He sat behind an upright piano to do his stately “Make You Miss Me.” And he gave several long-ish talks about country’s respect for “heritage,” at one point drawing a direct comparison to pop, which cares only about “the next thing,” as he put it.

“The music that our generation makes sounds a lot different than the music that our folks listened to,” he acknowledged. “But I think it’s important we celebrate the folks who came before” — including Brooks & Dunn, whose early ’90s “Brand New Man” he covered with help from Luke Combs, the middle-of-the-road up-and-comer who’d preceded Hunt on Stagecoach’s main stage.

It made for a sharp contrast with Hunt’s previous performance at this festival, in 2016, when he brought out Snoop Dogg, G-Eazy and Bebe Rexha (well before Rexha became an unlikely country star herself thanks to her “Meant to Be” collaboration with Florida Georgia Line).

Sam Hunt spoke about country music's respect for heritage.
Sam Hunt spoke about country music's respect for heritage. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For sure, Hunt’s set had the expected hip-hop and EDM textures, especially the thumping “Ex to See,” which has basically become a Chainsmokers song in the half-decade since he recorded it. And his well-received walk-on music — tracks by Billie Eilish and Travis Scott — reflected Hunt’s understanding of an audience that earlier Saturday happily sang along when singer Michael Ray tacked a bit of Coldplay’s “Fix You” onto his latest single.

Yet Hunt seemed less concerned with those modern trimmings than with the songwriterly fundamentals of tunes like “Cop Car,” whose cute back story (involving a first date gone awry) he related in detail, and “Take Your Time,” which he sang with a palpable tension that disrupted the song’s smooth surface.

Why this surprising shift? Speaking to the crowd, Hunt addressed the growing demand for a new album by saying in a semi-apologetic tone that his life had changed since he’d gotten married “two years and two weeks ago” — changed in a way, he’s suggested in interviews, that he hasn’t quite figured out how to absorb into his music.

Hunt’s breakthrough was propelled by his deceptively radical sound and his relatable lyrics about heartbreak in a small town. (Also his quarterback’s good looks.) Now he’s a happy husband whose sound has become Nashville’s new normal.

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Maybe it’s no wonder he’s got his mind on the old days.

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