Don't Judge Country Star Sam Hunt Because He Was a Football Player: ‘I Had to Break Down That Stereotype’

Sam Hunt
Chase Lauer

Billboard talked with the country singer Sam Hunt about his hit "Leave The Night On," currently at No. 38 and climbing on the Hot 100.

I'd love to hear a little bit about how the song came together, when you first wrote it, the whole trajectory.

It's a song I wrote about a year and a half ago. It was kind of an unassuming song. I was excited because we wrote a cool song at the time and it stuck around as I continued to write more songs and started to work on an album. And then when I went into record the songs my producer Zach Crowell really took it to another place with the production. He spent a lot of time on it and we continued to build it as we went. The final product just turned out really cool. When we put it beside the rest of the songs for the record it just stood out as a good song that could really be a good introduction and also a good first single as far as being up tempo and covering a lot of the different elements that will be on the record in one song.

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Do you think the song serves as a good first introduction to you?

I think it's a good introduction. I don't think it covers all of what will be on the album as far as taste and style and the different tenets that the album will have. To be honest it wasn't my first pick for a first single. But we collectively talked about it and it ended up being something that we kind of voted on and I came around on it. The song that's going to be the second single is the song that I wanted to be the first single but as it worked out, I was wrong. I think it was the right decision to put out "Leave the Night On" first and then the second single that we're coming out with, "Take Your Time," is going to work as a second song to "Leave the Night On."

Why weren't you sure?

I think the concept of the song, the subject matter is something that has been written about a good bit and there have been a lot of songs in the past couple of years with the word "night" in the title. Even at the time writing it I was very aware of that and I wanted lyrically to make sure we didn't go down that same road and say things that had already been said, so I tried to find places to be a little more quirky with the lyrics and a little more unique.

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What's the sound like for the rest of Montevallo, your debut album?

There will be more songs that are upbeat and lighthearted and fun like "Leave the Night On" and then there will be songs that are more thoughtful and that can rate different emotions than the fun, upbeat good timing thing. Musically, it's a pretty diverse record as far as how the style goes. Regardless of your musical taste, I feel like if you listen to the whole record there's something for everybody.

Has anything surprised you about the response to "Leave the Night On"?

Not ever having done this before, I've really realized how powerful country radio is this summer. People all over the country have heard "Leave the Night On" and you can really tell at the live shows. You can see a difference and a growth, an evolution, from the beginning of the summer to now in the number of people who are coming out and singing it -- and not just singing it but singing it enthusiastically.

You played college football, and even briefly signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. How did you transition to music?

The biggest thing for me was overcoming the stereotype that I had put on myself as a football player, that we're not allowed to be a musician. So when I got a guitar and moved to Nashville, I absolutely came to town with my hat in my hand thinking I didn't have a clue what I was doing, thinking that I didn't belong in this music world. I would go into co-write assuming that these people I was writing with knew much more than me and I needed to follow their direction. I had to break down that stereotype before I could ever really find my voice as a musician. It took a little while but I finally realized that I had had that gene all along, I just never tapped into it. When I finally started to own my pursuit of this music thing and feel like I belonged as a songwriter and as an artist, that's when I really started having success and I started to feel more natural and it started moving a lot faster.

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Would you ever write a song about football?

I don't know. For a while I avoided it, not that I wasn't proud of playing football and all. I didn't want to be the college quarterback who wants to now go play guitar and I'm probably still a victim of these little stereotypes I have in my mind. But as I start to break them down, I may write about those experiences at some point. I just haven't really quite connected those experiences to the music yet enough to emotionally tap into a song like that. But maybe at some point.

You released a mixtape, which is unusual for a country artist.

I had been in town for a few years and was at a point in my songwriting career where I was starting to write songs that I felt like represented me as an artist. I had always wanted to make a record so I felt like it was the right time to do that. I met a producer [Zach Crowell] who I felt like was the perfect producer for a record. I had never found anybody before that I thought I meshed well with from a production standpoint, so we got together and started talking. He's a producer who comes from the hip-hop world. We were just talking about the way music is consumed and the way it's changing and the way that I felt like a lot of folks in the country world were not really tapping into opportunities that were out there for getting music to people. The mixtape idea came up and we kind of just said, ‘Why not put out music of our own in that same way?'

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You wrote a big hit, "Come Over", with Kenny Chesney. What was that like?

That was cool. When I bought a guitar after graduating high school, one of his songs was the first song I learned to play. It was a song called "What I Needed to Do" and it was extra-special because I still have that same guitar and worked on "Come Over" on that same guitar. It was something I'd never experienced before, to hear a song that I had worked on and experienced from start to finish. To hear it on the radio reaching so many people, that was a really cool moment. When we wrote that song a lot of people told us that it wasn't a country song or that it couldn't work in country music and to have somebody as big as Kenny Chesney endorse that style and get it out there to people, that was huge as far as moving forward with that sound that I was working on.

An edited version of this story appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.