Anybody who thought the feud about rap and R&B busting into country music’s supposedly fenced-off ranch started with last year’s “Old Town Road” shootout must have missed the fireworks around Sam Hunt’s whole country chart–topping career. Hunt was a high school and college football quarterback in Georgia and Alabama, and briefly an NFL prospect, before he shifted gear to pay his dues on Nashville’s Music Row. While that background yielded some of the hookup-and-party attitude one might expect, it also meant he’d grown up closer to young black Southerners and contemporary black music than many country artists do. Not everybody liked the way that shaped his songs, not to mention the more urbane, noncowboy way he dressed. (He was on the cover of Billboard’s “Music’s Men of Style” issue in 2015.)
After Hunt’s debut album Montevallo came out in 2014, the purist site Saving Country Music vehemently declared it “NOT country” for its electronic production flourishes and its drawled-over-a-beat passages, as in “Break Up in a Small Town,” reminiscent of recent rappers like Drake (but also of a long line of midsong recitations in country). When Hunt’s 2017 single “Body Like a Back Road” briefly became the longest-running No. 1 in the history of the Hot Country Songs chart, many disliked it not only for how its booty-centric urges reinforce the worst of “bro country” but for the R&B-influenced melodic contours it uses to hug its titular callipygian curves.
Shortly before that came “Drinkin’ Too Much,” Hunt’s most blatantly Drake-gone-country track: Its template is the rapper-singer’s 2011 “Marvins Room,” which Hunt nodded to by covering that song in live shows. It also drew ire for seeming to carry on the pattern of “doxing” that started when he let the press know Montevallo had been named after an ex-girlfriend’s Alabama hometown. Here, the song’s narrator explicitly (and drunkenly, late-night Drake style) apologizes to her for doing that—but then goes on to call her out by name and suggest he’s using this track to talk to her because she won’t take his calls.
After all that, a strange thing happened. Hunt all but stopped putting out songs. His second album, Southside, arrives this week five-and-a-half years after Montevallo and three after “Body,” an almost unthinkable gap for the get-it-while-it’s-hot strategic model of Nashville country. And in the interim, the former college football star seemed to revise nearly everything about his life. He and that woman from Montevallo, Hannah Lee Fowler, are now married. In fact, they were already engaged when he released “Drinkin’ Too Much”—she’s the one who plays the brief piano coda at the end of the track, equal parts sentimental gesture and notarized evidence of consent. In interviews across the intervening years, Hunt has seemed to be taking stock of not only his lifestyle, his faith, and even his political views, but also of his musical direction.
Hunt often suggested he would lean more “traditional” on his next album, but more recently he told the New York Times he’d quietly been experimenting with several more hip-hop-oriented producers. When Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” came along, “I was like, doggonit, somebody kind of has done it before I could get to it,” he said. “And it was like, well, shoot, now what?” That dilemma, and his own perfectionism, plus his pledge to Fowler to get his work-life balance right, all seem to explain the long wait for Southside. As well as its ultimate form. Much of Southside is the tale of Hunt’s personal transformation, doubling as an answer record to Montevallo itself, lyrically and musically. Outside of the older singles it gathers up (“Body” is here, and “Drinkin’ Too Much” closes it all out), it’s more musically conservative than Hunt’s most progressive-minded listeners might have hoped, with one notable exception. But befitting a man of 35, it’s also (minus one major misstep) less crass and more emotionally considered, and much the better for it.
The album opens, on the song “2016,” with a lone strummed acoustic guitar chord, the kind a player uses to establish the key and make sure he’s in tune, serving as a signal of a back-to-basics reset. And that’s what the song is about too, turning back time, putting “the whiskey back in the bottle,” “the smoke back in the joint,” and “the tears back in your eyes.” It’s amends-making (a bit of AA language that surfaces in the bridge) to Fowler, presumably, and an empathetic encapsulation of what it’s like to have whole years of your life you might regret. But in form, it’s also a rebuttal to the accusations of being not country enough on Montevallo.
What follows with “Hard to Forget” is another kind of assertion of country bona fides but also the most nontraditional sonic move on the whole record. It’s Hunt’s best response to “Old Town Road,” Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up,” and anyone else who might try to outmaneuver him in the country-rap merge lane. The song starts with a sample of Webb Pierce’s 1953 hard-country classic “There Stands the Glass,” which it then warps—almost chipmunk-soul style—and reiterates through the whole texture of the song. Hunt heard the Pierce sample through fellow Nashville songwriter Luke Laird, who’s said he was thinking “If Kanye West came across a bin of old country records, what would he do?” Hunt immediately felt driven to write a song around it, which turns out to be a catchy Kenny Chesney–like bopper in which the singer feels that an old flame is trying to tempt him back—“playing hard to forget,” rather than hard to get, a bit of country wordplay as classic vintage as “There Stands the Glass” itself.
Yet Pierce’s desperate and at the time somewhat scandalous postwar drinking song is the dark imp twisting through the radio-friendly whimsy. It puts the potential lie to the singer’s belief that his ex is sending him homing signals by hinting against the grain that it could just be tanked-up wishful thinking, in which case he’s verging on stalking (à la “Drinkin’ Too Much”). The lyrics themselves hint at it via the soused pun, “I got a bottle of whiskey/ but I got no proof.” The song’s video, set in a cheap motel gone Felliniesque, underlines the suspicion of unreality that the sample weaves into the track (and provokes some downright confounded YouTube comments from viewers). But it’s the sample that says it most—while at the same time outdoing the likes of Lil Nas X by building on a part of the country canon instead of a random online library string sound. To me, “Hard to Forget” is in the running for one of the best songs of 2020, country or otherwise, and Laird as well as some Nashville insiders told Rolling Stone that they wouldn’t be surprised if it set off a trend.
Much of the rest of the album tends toward a more restrained version of the Montevallo sound, but often with the thematic polarity reversed. “Kinfolks” here seems like a comeback to that album’s “Take Your Time,” in which the narrator assures a pickup that he’s not looking to take her back to meet his mama or anything like that. Here, that life-meld is exactly what he’s jonesing to do, much more than getting her into bed. “Young Once” seems like a spin on one of the previous album’s highlights, “Cop Car,” also a 2014 hit for Keith Urban. That song was about two reckless kids falling in love in the back of the title vehicle after a run-in with the law. “Young Once” celebrates the same kind of adventure through the rearview, with the adolescent lovers (improbably) aware their idyll has an expiration date: “Time goes by/ And it’ll dull the razor/ And we don’t know why. … At least we know someday/ We can look back and say/ We were young once.”
“Breaking Up Was Easy in the ’90s” is a kind of good-humored counterpart to “Break Up in a Small Town” for a social media age more pervasive today than it was six years ago. As on “Hard to Forget,” Hunt is seeing reminders of his lost sweetheart everywhere, but instead of in the clouds or the bottom of a glass, he’s finding them on his phone, popping up on the Instagram he can’t resist checking. “Modern love leads to modern hearts breakin’,” he sings on the bridge. “I’m just a product of my generation.” Recalling Hunt’s older hit, it’s as if any place is a small town now, even the big city, when it takes a major act of will to cut off contact and connection.
“Downtown’s Dead,” similarly, feels like a sequel to Montevallo’s randy “Single for the Summer,” but now all the action out on the street is spiritually deserted for the singer, without his true love: “There ain’t no way I can paint a ghost town red.” That song was Hunt’s lowest-charting single when it came out in 2018, but I think the contrast between the dance music colorations and its lonely lyric is effective—not to mention the way it doubles as a subtle critique of the city of Nashville’s own tourist-driven gentrification, and it triples in the week of Southside’s release as an evocation of pandemic-emptied downtowns everywhere.
Amid all these smart, self-aware tracks, the inclusion of “Body Like a Back Road” feels like an unwelcome hangover resurfacing from years ago. And right on the heels of it is the album’s only utterly winceworthy new song, “That Ain’t Beautiful,” in which Hunt patronizingly lectures some young lady friend (that seems the appropriate term here) about her drunken misbehaviors at bars and destination weddings. “That ain’t beautiful,” he tut-tuts in the chorus. “That ain’t you/ You can do better.” It’s enough to make me run away screaming to the nearest Miranda Lambert or Brandy Clark record, where the same embarrassing anecdotes would be rollickingly recounted with a twinkle and a shrug that a woman’s just gotta act out her frustrations sometimes. Given all that Hunt is acknowledging he has to repent for—and need I mention his own arrest on a DUI as recently as November?—it’s a bizarre choice to turn around and cast stones. It gives me pause about the new-leaf, family-man stance that Hunt strikes on the majority of Southside. The work of self-reform doesn’t give you license to judge everyone else’s fun, and certainly not, for Christ’s sake (and I invoke that cheek-turner’s name deliberately), in a goddamn country song.
Thankfully, Hunt finds much more nuance on the subject of sin and forgiveness on the album’s other stunner (besides “Hard to Forget”), the acoustic ballad “Sinning With You.” Written with Josh Osborne (as many of Hunt’s songs are), as well as Emily Weisband (who, interestingly, comes partly from a Christian-music background), it’s an anti-puritan look back at premarital relations that gains a supplementary (but unneeded) jolt when you’re aware that Hunt’s wife’s father is a preacher. There’s superb writing throughout, but the opening verse is extraordinary:
Raised in the first pew, praises for Yeshua
Case of a small-town repression
Your body was baptized, so disenfranchised
I was your favorite confession
My past was checkered, your spotless record
Was probably in jeopardy
Your place or my place, His grace and your grace
Felt like the same thing to me
Has the word disenfranchised ever been deployed at all, let alone so aptly, in any popular music outside a protest song—and is this a protest song? In an interview with Kelleigh Bannen on Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio, Hunt said, “I didn’t realize until I left my hometown that I had been so, I don’t want to say programmed, but maybe programmed, conditioned to kind of think certain things without questioning them too much. … And the song’s not necessarily taking a stance on it either way, but it’s just reflecting on, I guess, the feelings.”
The more libertine among us might be let down that the message here is basically that God always understood that the couple were meant for each other, so it was OK. But given the clandestine gropings implied by the whole context—not to mention the album’s evidence that this couple’s “meant to be” was often pretty shaky—the song feels plenty risqué for country. It’s at once morally serious, lightly winking, and unspeakably more erotic than a thousand “Body Like a Back Roads” combined. Mixing in some sin never hurts, if that’s not just the fallen Catholic in me talking. Justin Bieber could only dream that his attempts to mix hot marital sex and warm Christian devotion on this winter’s Changes had ended up so incendiary. But these are the intricate carnal metaphysics, of course, that soul music, with its gospel roots, is all about.
It takes all of that preparation to bring the album back to “Drinkin’ Too Much.” As the end of this cycle, a song that seemed to wrongfoot so much of its audience three years ago now seems like the retrospective Rosetta Stone to the imperfect (sorry, perfectionist Sam) but ultimately moving and fulfilling complete work to come. I have to admit I always thought “Drinkin’ Too Much,” for all its dodgy moments, was kind of an unexpected moment of brilliance coming from Hunt—the first time outside of maybe “Small Town” that I thought he had anything interesting to say lyrically rather than stylistically. I am a sucker for a meta pop song, for any time a song recursively makes its own existence part of the story it’s narrating. And however manipulative it might seem, it also felt kind of headspinningly rare as a song in which the writer-singer recognizes that being the subject of a song might be a betrayal, a trap, a victimhood for the writer’s muse. The moral issue was whether it then turned that around on her. Given all we know now, that doesn’t seem like such a problem, and it’s easier to appreciate how the moral chaos within the song’s internal scenario—as well as the game that it plays pretending to documentary truth but leaving the story open-ended—gives it emotional resonance, making it feel as messy as real life, in towns of any sizes. It even gives me renewed appreciation for Drake’s self-dramatizations, which have been going stale for a long minute.
For those of us who were rooting for Hunt to really push the bounds of what country is capable of, Southside may sound like it barely goes the distance. But by turning its musical hybridity from a novelty into a vehicle to convey that kind of grown-up content—with all the dirt and noise and hurt it implies—it does something better. It proves that fork in the road can lead to someplace a person (or a genre) might want to settle in and stay awhile.