"The song has been continuing to climb at country and, while we knew it would be big, the numbers are incredible," says Royce Risser, Universal Music Group Nashville senior vp promotion. ("Back Road" was released on UMG's MCA Nashville label.) Most notably, "Back Road" is the fifth-best-selling song of 2017 among all genres: 546,000 downloads sold in the U.S. since its Feb. 1 arrival, per Nielsen Music. (No accompanying album has yet been announced; Hunt's first LP, Montevallo, has sold 1.3 million copies since its October 2014 release.)
Pop radio noticed those figures, too, and put "Back Road" on its map. CBS Radio-owned stations KVIL Dallas (30 plays in the tracking week) and WBBM Chicago (22) on the mainstream pop side and KLLC San Francisco and WBMX Boston (32 each), both adult pop outlets, are early champions of the song outside country.
"We didn't plan to cross it this soon," Risser says; in its ninth week on Country Airplay, "Back Road" is the youngest song in the chart's top 15. "But, when pop started to [play it], we had to re-evaluate. We quickly saw a good picture forming. [UMG Nashville chairman/CEO] Mike Dungan began asking if we should make our move and actively work this to pop now. He picked up the phone and spoke with [UMG's Capitol executive vp promotion] Greg Marella, and they made the decision to go as soon as possible."
Hunt has enjoyed crossover success before. In 2015, his 11-week Hot Country Songs No. 1 "Take Your Time" segued to the top 15 on both the Adult Pop Songs and Adult Contemporary airplay charts and the top 30 on Pop Songs (while reaching No. 20 on the Hot 100, Hunt's best rank prior to "Back Road").
While "Take Your Time" is a more traditional ballad for pop radio, along with a nod to rap in its spoken-word verses, "Back Road" is more country at its core. Still, Hunt's star power, the song's sales and its own merits are combining for its travels to pop formats.
"We had absolutely no concerns about it sounding 'too country,' because what it sounds like is a hit," says KLLC assistant program director/music director Jayn. "As [PD] Michael [Martin] says, 'Sound barriers only exist in a limited mind.'"
"A song would not be hanging with Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, The Chainsmokers and others near the top of overall [sales charts] as strongly or for as long as it has been if it weren't a legitimate option for pop radio," notes WBBM APD/MD Erik Bradley. "We certainly aren't looking to break a country song, but Sam seems so much more than that. He is just a big-time superstar and it just feels like this song is a logical choice to give a shot."