Artistic though it may be, music has an arithmetic order to it.
The 3/4 and 4/4 time signatures are the most obvious numerical aspect, though the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, a song’s beats per minute and Nashville’s use of the number system for most recording sessions increase the effect.
Things are adding up for Sam Hunt in a big way on that numerical front. He hit No. 1 on Country Airplay with his last single, incorporating an integer into the title “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90’s,” and his latest is simply labeled “23.” It abandons country’s “three chords and the truth” philosophy, using only two chords in the entire three-minute run, although they are more complex than the typical country song. Whereas the genre usually employs three-note major chords, “23” toggles between a pair of major seventh chords, a four-note construct with one extra note that’s only a half step below the root.
Essentially, the major seventh chord is a standard harmonic stack with one dissonant tone thrown in. Thus, “23” is built around a happy core sound with an unresolved pinch of sadness, a contradictory tone that, for some, conjures up a previous decade.
“A hundred percent, that seventh chord I associate a lot of times with a certain era in music, the ’70s,” says Hunt. “I’ll avoid it a lot of times, but it definitely has its place.”
Particularly in “23.” Songwriter-producer-guitarist Chris LaCorte (Russell Dickerson, Dustin Lynch) developed the alternating major sevenths for a 98-second track in the key of E flat during the second quarter of 2020. He embellished it with synth arpeggios and an atmospheric guitar effect that sounds much like a Hawaiian steel, creating a hypnotic foundation. And since the two chords each beg for a resolution that never arrives, the track exhibits a bittersweet, addictive tint.
“The beautiful thing about music is it’s like a universal language that you don’t even have to hear words,” says LaCorte. “It can make you feel an emotion, and its power to communicate that emotion to anyone on the planet, regardless of what language they speak, is really special.”
LaCorte labeled it “drive” and made it cut No. 6 among about 15 tracks he gave to Hunt in June 2020 when the singer-songwriter headed to Florida for a writing retreat with Shane McAnally (“Half of My Hometown,” “One Night Standards”) and Josh Osborne (“I Was on a Boat That Day,” “Beers and Sunshine”) on the Gulf Coast. Hunt’s cowriters were enamored with the sound.
“It is just untouchable,” says McAnally. “I honestly was afraid to even try to write words or melody over that track, it was so good. Tastewise, for where I come from, what I love, it hits every mark. It is the song I’ve been trying to write for my whole career.”
The trio had previously tried to write a song called “22” in Charleston, S.C., and Hunt pulled that idea back out for a nostalgic hook: “I’ll never be 22 with anyone but you.” But since Taylor Swift already has a song called “22,” McAnally suggested changing the number, which also flipped the focus to the girl: “You’ll never be 23 with anyone but me.” And the suggestion of a past love who’s frozen in time matched the attitude of the music.
“Even having that track playing as sort of the background music to the conversation when we started talking about those times and being that age, all that imagery just really felt right,” recalls Hunt.
McAnally contributed an opening line, “You can marry an architect,” that pays homage to his favorite song, Dan Fogelberg‘s “Same Old Lang Syne,” and to a former girlfriend who wed a builder. Six lines in, they changed to a quicker phrasing that rolls to a stop before the chorus. That pre-chorus was just as seductive as the formal chorus that followed, and the three then debated whether to use that pre- section as a post-chorus. Ultimately, they repeated the melody as a pre- and post- wraparound to the primary hook.
“It basically is like a chorus sandwich,” says Osborne.
For verse two, they imagined the modern-day version of the girl riding a train to work, suggesting she’s likely left their Southern playground for life in the Northeast. And when they restarted the next chorus sandwich, they gave the singer the opportunity to show he valued their time together, even if she broke his heart.
“Sam’s whole thing on it was how precious that time actually is because you really only get it once, and you shared it with somebody,” says Osborne. “It feels like kind of a heavy concept in a light-sounding song, and that’s always appealed to me.”
The whole thing was completed in just two hours, and when Hunt returned to Nashville, he laid down an easy-going vocal track at Card Table Studio, a creative space he shares with LaCorte. It would go through a maze of changes, though, in part because the major seventh chords were different enough that Hunt thought radio might balk. So he had LaCorte and producer Zach Crowell (Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood) try some different options, though the song lost something when they subtracted the sevenths.
Hunt tried some alternative speeds, too, though they proved problematic as he zeroed in on the balance of emotions.
“We went back and forth on the tempo of this song 50 times, and it was one beat different,” says McAnally. “Sam would send me a version, one BPM up, and he’d be like, ‘Does this feel like it takes away the sadness?’ And then he would send me the slower one and go, ‘Does this feel like it takes away the happy?’ That stuff is really important to him.”
Ultimately, Hunt reverted to the original major seventh chords with the slightly faster tempo, and LaCorte called in drummer Aaron Sterling and Dobro player Josh Matheny to build on top of his instrumental parts. Hunt readdressed the lead vocals, too.
“We cut vocals on three different days, like different times of the day, just to see what all we could get,” recalls LaCorte. “I think it was the second time, we actually did them with him sitting down, which totally brought you a different kind of relaxed tonality to it. And that’s something I stole from Zach Crowell. It made it feel less like you’re performing and more of just like really feeling the song.”
MCA Nashville released “23” to AM/FM radio via PlayMPE on Sept. 9, and it climbed to No. 27 on Country Airplay in its fifth charted week. Whether or not the ’70s-sounding major sevenths help him match the No. 1 status of “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90’s,” “23” was No. 1 chronologically as Hunt develops his next album.
“The song was the first one,” he notes. “Even though it doesn’t necessarily tell a story front to back, the song does set the tone for the other songs and the spirit of the whole record.”
Thus, “23” adds up.
This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter, which features the latest airplay, sales and streaming charts along with compelling analysis of market trends and conditions. All for free. Click here to subscribe.