In the 5 1/2 years since Sam Hunt released “Montevallo” — the triple-platinum 2014 debut on which he fused country music and hip-hop more naturally than any singer before him — virtually all of Nashville has crowded onto his bandwagon.
But extraordinary times can do funny things to extraordinary people. Asked this week how he’s been amusing himself while cooped up with his wife at home during the coronavirus pandemic, Hunt laughed.
“Like everyone else, we’ve been watching ‘Tiger King,’” the Georgia native said of the Netflix docuseries quickly approaching “Old Town Road”-level cultural ubiquity. “I had to check and make sure Joe Exotic wasn’t somebody I knew down the road from where I grew up.”
On Friday, Hunt, 35, released his new record, “Southside,” into a musical environment that Lil Nas X, Breland, Blanco Brown and others would tell you Hunt helped shape. And though he’s still blending hand-played instruments with head-nodding beats, the album also emphasizes Hunt’s traditional songwriting talent in tunes inspired by his relationship with Hannah Lee Fowler, whom he married in 2017 after a decade of on-and-off romance.
“I thought I wanted my freedom / I told myself I’d have a ball,” he sings on “2016,” a stirring acoustic ballad whose title points to one of the couple’s off periods, “But it turns out going out and chasing dreams and lonely women / Ain’t freedom after all.”
The singer checked in over the phone from his place near Nashville, where he posted a video on Instagram the other day that showed him riding a motorcycle, trailed by several dogs, through a wide, grassy field.
“We’re outside of town a good ways,” he said. “We live in this old-style wood cabin — not a whole lot going on out here. Fortunately, we have a little room to get out of the house and enjoy the sunshine on the nice days.”
Q: In some of these celebrity quarantine videos, you get a real sense of how lavish folks’ homes are. Your cabin looks pretty rustic.
A: You could say that. My wife and I are more like minimalists than anything else, partly because we can’t keep up with much more than the few things we need. We’ve been living here for about six months. We don’t have TV, so there’s not much to watch, but we can stream stuff on our phones.
Q: Anything besides “Tiger King”?
A: The new season of “Ozark.” Then I go down my YouTube rabbit holes: conspiracy documentaries or some random lecture from some professor somewhere about something I’m way underinformed on.
Q: That Instagram clip also showed you and your wife playing some music. Is that typical for you guys?
A: It’s not. I’ve played more music for fun in the last two or three days than I have in I don’t know how long. I never pick up my guitar unless I’m going in to write or going on the bus. But after about Day 4, I felt far enough removed from any sort of work obligation that I felt the urge to pick it up and start playing. My wife plays a little piano, so we just mess around to pass the time.
Q: You’d already been lying relatively low over the last couple of years while you made this new album. Were you well prepared for enforced homebody-dom?
A: Yeah, but after spending last year around the house and a good bit of the year before, I will say I’m getting antsy. I think I overcorrected for the three or four years I toured my first record.
Q: Any second thoughts about releasing this one amid a global health crisis?
A: I guess I’m looking at the next year, year and a half more than I am the next two weeks or months. I’ve always felt like if I have music that I’m going to put out and it’s ready, I don’t want to sit around and wait for the perfect time. I’d rather put it out immediately.
Q: Last year’s Stagecoach festival was one of the few shows you played in 2019, and it surprised a lot of people. You covered Waylon Jennings and Brooks & Dunn; it was rootsier than many expected.
A: I think I was feeling a little nostalgic during that time. I was listening to the country music I grew up listening to — wearing my boots more than my Jordans, I guess you could say. I hadn’t really stopped to look back and reflect until about two years ago. That’s when I started to lean back into the country side of my influences. But also, when I put out my first record, we weren’t as inundated as we are now with urban music and with beats. Now everything is influenced by hip-hop; we hear it in all music now.
Q: What did you think the first time you heard “Old Town Road” or Breland’s “My Truck”?
A: It felt like a natural progression when you consider the taste of a contemporary country music fan — the fact that we all listen to all types of music. But my thought was, wouldn’t it be something if we had songs like this that were written from the perspective of somebody who had even more insight into country music in terms of the tradition and the culture and the language and the songwriting? The melodies and the phrasing and the beats — all that was there in those songs, and that’s what makes you feel something. But if you combine some of the more traditional Nashville storyteller approach with something like that, I felt like it could be even bigger. Not that you could get any bigger than “Old Town Road.”
Q: Bigger, no. But deeper, maybe.
A: For this record there had to be some other place that I had to try to find. The production wasn’t as important to me anymore. It was more about being more vulnerable and personal than I have in the past.
Q: You feel you got there?
A: I don’t know. I’m really happy with this record, but whether I can do better going forward — whether I can beat it, whatever that even means — I’m not sure. This is what I got.
Q: Did it feel different to write about your personal life given that listeners now know things about you and the people close to you? Do you give people a heads-up?
A: I make sure that I always play the songs for anybody who might feel like they’re a part of them. My wife, she’s a really authentic person. I can be a chameleon in a lot of ways; I can kind of adapt to whatever situation I’m in. But she just is who she is, and she can’t fake it. She likes the idea of me putting out songs that are more real instead of songs that give the impression we’re living this lifestyle of no worries.
Q: “Babe, this song makes us sound too happy.”
A: Right — which is kind of how I would normally lean. She encourages me to reveal a little more than I otherwise would.
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