Sam Hunt marked a generational shift in country music, both in music and business. Hunt slipped hip-hop phrasing and modern R&B rhythms into country-pop, signaling a progression from the boisterous bro-country that had previously defined the 2010s. "Leave the Light On" introduced this blend in 2014 and it became a country smash, the first of five number one singles — a streak interrupted only by "Break Up in a Small Town" peaking at number two, even though it sold better than either "House Party" or "Make You Miss Me." All this success paled in comparison to 2017's "Body Like a Back Road," which broke the record for most weeks spent at number one in 2017. Another significant thing about "Body Like a Back Road" is that it was released independent of an album, and Hunt didn't rush back into the studio to deliver one, either. This signaled how so much of his rise was fueled by a mastery of the digital marketplace, realizing when he should release EPs or lay back and let an LP do the work. As much as his music, it's this Internet savviness that marked Sam Hunt as the start of a new generation.
Initially, Sam Hunt didn't plan to sing for a living. A native of Cedartown, Georgia, Hunt excelled at sports, specializing in football. His time as a high-school quarterback was acclaimed — he earned a nomination for Wendy's High School Heisman trophy — and upon graduation, he enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University in 2003. Hunt didn't play much in either the 2003 or 2004 seasons, so he transferred to the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2005, where he graduated in 2007. During his time at UAB, Hunt began to teach himself how to play guitar and sing, so when his 2008 tryout for the Kansas City Chiefs didn't go anywhere, he decided to head to Nashville to pursue a career in music.
Sam Hunt first made waves in the Music City as a songwriter, receiving his breakthrough in 2012 when he co-wrote the number one Kenny Chesney hit "Come Over." Hunt seized on this opportunity and released the single "Raised on It" from a mixtape of original songs called Between the Pines in 2013, which helped give him momentum as a performing artist. Two big songwriting credits arrived in 2014 — Keith Urban's "Cop Car" and Billy Currington's "We Are Tonight" — but so did a contract with MCA Nashville. He signed with the label in January and released the digital EP X2C in August. Not much later, "Leave the Night On" — a sleek, R&B-inflected country-pop tune he co-wrote with Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally — was released as a single and it quickly became a staple on country radio, reaching the top spot on Billboard's Country Airplay chart and getting certified as platinum twice.
"Leave the Night On" was so successful that MCA decided to rush the release of Montevallo, Sam Hunt's full-length debut. Upon its release on October 27, 2014, Montevallo debuted at three on Billboard's Top 200, and it was a fixture on the charts for the next two and a half years. Part of the reason it stayed on the charts is because it kept generating big hits. "Take Your Time" reached number one on the Country Airplay chart early in 2015, followed by "House Party" shortly afterward. All three singles stayed on the airwaves through the bulk of 2015, which meant MCA didn't release another single until September of that year, when "Break Up in a Small Town" became the record's fourth single. It only peaked at two, but "Break Up in a Small Town" sold more than "House Party." While it was on the charts, the Between the Pines mixtape was reissued on the year anniversary of Montevallo's release.
"Make You Miss Me," the fifth single from Montevallo, kept Hunt on the airwaves through 2016, but he didn't release a new single until "Body Like a Back Road." A smash upon its February 2017 release, "Body Like a Back Road" stayed on the top of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart for 34 weeks, crashing the previous record held by Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise," which topped out at 24 weeks. It also spent three weeks at the top of the Country Airplay chart. "Body Like a Back Road" was such a hit that Hunt decided to take his time delivering a second album, or even a second single from the second album. "Downtown's Dead" finally appeared in May 2018, winding up peaking at 15 on the Country Airplay chart. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine