Who is rocketing to the top of the pack in country music — or any other genre — faster than Sam Hunt? He rolled through town last fall as one of three singers (along with Kip Moore and Charlie Worsham) on the CMT Tour. Mere months later, he played as a headliner in the city. Though his origins are country, his sound is much broader, and it has connected widely. Several publications that don’t cover country — or don’t cover mainstream country, which amounts to the same thing — have made an exception for Hunt.
What happened in between the CMT Tour and last night’s show at New York City’s Irving Plaza? Hunt released his debut album, Montevallo, and became the first country singer in 22 years to hit No. 1 on 3 genre charts simultaneously. This an impressive first step; it’s more impressive when you take into account Hunt’s expansive ideas about what music counts as “country.” While the genre he calls his own is often criticized as aesthetically conservative, it almost instantly embraced him — even though his sound barely existed a year ago.
Of course, headlining a show relies on different skills than creating hits in the studio, and so Hunt played with two guitarists and a flashy drummer. For most of the beats, he relied on pre-programmed rhythms. At times, the band played maybe half a song, leaving the rest to technology. On recording, Hunt’s rough, heartthrob voice shines clearly; during the show, it wasn’t always easy to hear. This diminished the impact of his delivery, a mix of speaking and rapid-fire singing that sets him apart from other country singers.
But none of that mattered: this was a dominant performance, and a stunning one. Who covers more ground than Hunt? His show was like a dare to the audience. How many different strains of pop music can be put into play at once?
More than you’d think, even in this age of freewheeling listening. After Hunt played “Raised On It,” an assertion of his country roots, he took a breather while the sound system pumped out R. Kelly‘s “Bump N’ Grind.” Hunt followed own his synth-driven track, “Single In The Summer,” with Rihanna‘s “We Found Love;” after his sexy-but-safe come-on number, “Take Your Time.” When Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” blasted over the speakers, Hunt wiped the sweat from his brow, grinned, and sang along.
These moments of genre mish-mash served multiple purposes. They are undeniably an effective way to move a crowd, providing an easy shortcut to the audience’s pleasure center. A few songs also served as homage — the way Hunt mingles conversation and recitation, for example, owes much to post-“Bump N’ Grind” R. Kelly. And Hunt offered important lessons here on cross-genre similarity as well.
For many artists, that would be enough. For this singer, that was only the beginning. At one point, he set up stools with his two guitarists — just as he has done in videos of his band playing these songs at acoustic sorority shows. In this formation, Hunt continued his assault on listening patterns.
Want classic country? Here’s Reba McEntire and Deana Carter. For good measure, Hunt threw in TLC, Destiny’s Child, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Bonnie Raitt. Hunt’s backing vocalist/guitarist carried the lead vocal gracefully in several of these tracks. It was hard to tell what got a bigger response from the crowd, Reba or TLC. It was also hard to imagine another modern male performer playing a lengthy medley of songs all made famous by female performers.
With an acoustic guitar and an appreciation of feeling and rhythm, Hunt set out to obliterate whatever space remains between ’80s adult contemporary, ’90s R&B, and modern country. (Perhaps he’s singing a cross generational response to Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” when, in “Take Your Time,” he pleads, “I don’t want to make you love me.”)
When Hunt took a seat behind a small keyboard to play unaccompanied on “Make You Miss Me,” there were no beats crowding him or guitars to compete with. There, he offered the clearest glimpse of his husky mid-range, smooth but rugged voice — throw ’70s piano balladeer into Hunt’s mash-up as well. Country’s not moving quick enough to hold him, but that’s okay. Neither is anything else.