Mainstream country music is not always known for being sonically daring, but Jason Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down” and Sam Hunt’s “Break Up In A Small Town” represent something genuinely new. These songs merge contemporary trends in country and R&B and ultimately end up sounding like nothing else in either genre.
To get the story behind the burgeoning trend toward R&B-inflected country music, Billboard spoke to the songwriters behind these innovative tracks.
When Florida Georgia Line (Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley) set about writing “Burnin’ It Down” with Rodney Clawson and Chris Tompkins, they were definitely looking to make something different.
Clawson — who’s penned hits for Blake Shelton and Lady Antebellum — tells Billboard the four were “trying to come up with a little bit of a new direction for [FGL] to go in.” When FGL hit the road opening for Aldean, he heard the song and expressed interest. Since Tyler and Brian were at least nine months from hitting the studio, they generously passed it on Aldean.
What’s remarkable about “Burnin’ It Down” is that it could be an R&B hit with minor changes. There’s a funky bass line, nimbly riffing high in the mix. The beat is largely programmed, with a big, steady slap out front and a quick chattering that flits through the back, nodding toward the trap percussion that rules much contemporary R&B. While pedal steel slides in during the hook, reasserting the song’s identity as country, this is a smooth, streamlined loop — someone like Trey Songz could sing on it without thinking twice.
Aldean himself nodded to its cross-genre appeal when he spoke to Billboard for a recent cover story, describing “Burnin’ It Down” as “R&B, baby-making music.”
Clawson says he “was actually really surprised that Jason wanted it and that it ended up being his first single, ’cause that’s a pretty big stretch for him.” But Aldean’s multi-platinum hit “Dirt Road Anthem” from 2010 does provide some precedent. The original version of that song, by Brantley Gilbert and Colt Ford, also worked around a little guitar loop, the kind common in ’90s R&B from the likes of Usher or Donell Jones.
Chris Tompkins, who came up with the beat for “Burnin’ It Down,” outright admits it was inspired by rap and R&B. “When I first started writing songs,” he tells Billboard, “I listened to a lot of R&B, a lot of rap. I was like the fifth member of Boyz II Men — that’s kind of where my head was. Driving around I listened to a bunch of types of music on the radio, and I noticed that in a lot of rap songs they have the hi-hats going like apeshit, doing like 16th and 32nd notes.”
Tompkins, who also has credits on recent smashes like FGL’s “Dirt” and Dierks Bentley‘s “Drunk On A Plane,” didn’t know any country songs that used those kinds of beats, so he saw an open lane. But he wasn’t sure the track would be a hit. “I kind of thought the lyrics were a little too steamy. I thought the beat was a little too ‘not country.'”
But in a post-Taylor Swift landscape, younger listeners are less bound to ideas of what is or isn’t country music. “For the most part,” Clawson explains, “the high school and college age kids… they don’t just listen to country, or just listen to hip-hop. They listen to everything. They don’t really care as much what genre it is.”
Wide listening isn’t just a matter of taste and upbringing — it’s also a professional necessity. To that end, Clawson says he frequently hops on Spotify to check out “the top 100 R&B songs, the top 100 hip-hop songs, the top 100 alternative songs, just to try to educate myself and keep up with trends.”
Another reason might have to do with competition. In a field crowded with male country singers, one way to put some distance between you and your peers is to embrace different musical styles.
But Aldean isn’t the only one seeing a bold new sound pay off — newcomer Sam Hunt’s second single, “Leave the Night On,” hit No. 4 on the Hot Country Songs chart. Clawson has high praise for the fellow genre-blurrer: “Sam’s really pushing the envelope in kind of a new direction too…as far as the lyric delivery, the meter of the delivery… the melody and the tracks.”
Hunt, a former quarterback at the University of Alabama, has also been a successful songwriter over the last couple of years. He co-wrote “Come Over” — which Kenny Chesney took to No. 1 on Hot Country Songs — along with Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally, one of country’s most revered songwriters.
McAnally remembers that when Hunt showed up to write “Come Over,” he was obsessed with the loop from “Just A Dream,” a track by the rapper Nelly. (Nelly has played an important role in country-rap fusion — in 2004, he released “Over and Over,” a top 5 collaboration with Tim McGraw, and he recently appeared on Florida Georgia Line’s smash “Cruise” remix.)
McAnally sees that “Come Over” session as the start of Hunt’s efforts to expand country’s sound. “[Hunt] loved country music growing up,” McAnally says, “but then he’s in the locker room listening to all this rap music. He said that his idea was sort of to bring those two worlds together, and that is where he’s ended up. That is him also pushing to be completely unique and away from anything else in the format… he really wanted to figure out how to put his own stamp on things.”
Last year, Hunt released an “acoustic mixtape,” showing that rap and R&B influence him in non-musical ways as well. McAnally believes the mixtape format — common in R&B and hip-hop, but not country — has a lot of virtues. “It’s a model that I think many people could learn from, because you are still evolving as an artist along the way. Just because you put music out, it doesn’t mean that is where you stop for the next year.”
Hunt, who is currently on tour, tells Billboard why he decided to make a mixtape. “We [Hunt and his co-producer, Zach Crowell] didn’t see a reason for us not to. Zach and I wanted to put music out and after a conversation about doing that, we started recording the mixtape on the spot.”
The acoustic mixtape doesn’t entirely prepare you for “Break Up In A Small Town,” which sounds like nothing has Hunt has released before. Hunt says the song was born when he was “singing that chorus melody late one night while riding around trying to come up with song ideas.” He had mulled over the “Break Up In a Small Town” concept, but “didn’t want to write anymore break up songs.”
Thankfully, the new melody convinced him to change his mind. When he sang the “Break Up In a Small Town” lyric with the tune he was humming in the car, “It fit too perfectly not to go with it.” He took this idea to Crowell and McAnally and played it for them on acoustic guitar. McAnally remembers hearing it and feeling “like God had just dropped a pot of gold in my lap.”
Hunt describes the verses coming together almost by accident: “I started talking out a verse concept, and Zach happened to be recording. He played back the talking in place of the verses.”
On “Break Up in a Small Town,” Hunt sing-talks over a beat made up of a series of clicks and clacks, not far from something like Frank Ocean‘s “Thinkin’ Bout You.” (Crowell’s credits include work on Lecrae’s 2012 album Gravity). The hook brings in a heavy programmed smack, along with some dubstep-leaning electronics that point toward a possible club remix.
Critics have suggested similarities between Drake‘s delivery and Hunt’s, but McAnally sees it differently. “People actually compare it to rapping, but it’s really not that. It’s completely his own.” McAnally brings up recitation, something which “used to be a big thing in country music, and in R&B. It’s sort of a new take on that… he’s got a way of speaking that sounds like singing, and then it goes into actual singing.”
Apparently several songs on Hunt’s debut full-length, due Oct. 27, take this even further: “‘Break Up In A Small Town’ is… dipping its toe in the water of what you’re gonna hear from Sam Hunt,” McAnally says.
But at the end of the day, this R&B-influenced country is less of a historical aberration than it might seem.
“There’s always been an artist or two in every phase of country music that’ll push the envelope,” Clawson says. “Back in the ’60s the guys that first started putting strings on their records, everybody thought, ‘That’s not country’.”
He also names the Bellamy Brothers, Juice Newton, Kenny Rogers, and Dolly Parton, all of whom experienced big crossover pop success in the early ’80s. “They did at least as much as what we’re doing right now as far as pushing the boundaries of country,” he notes. “You push the boundaries out, and everything will come back into the middle.”