Sam Hunt has arrived.
After penning hits for Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and Billy Currington, the 30-year-old Georgia native broke out on his own last year with his platinum-certified single, "Leave the Night On."
"It was one of those titles that's obviously a play on words and those historically have been a big part of country music," Hunt tells ETonline in this week's installment of Behind the Hit. "The bad thing about those titles is that most of them have been written."
While relaxing on his couch one night scanning emails on his phone, Hunt stumbled across a song called "Leave the Light On." At a quick glance, he mistakenly substituted "Light" with "Night."
"I thought immediately, 'How has nobody written that? I wish I had found this idea before they wrote it, '" he recalls. "As I looked a little closer, it was actually an 'L' -- my brain just put an 'N' there for some reason -- and I called my buddy Shane McAnally up right off the bat and was like, 'We need to write this song right away before somebody else does.' So that's what we did."
The pair called on Zach Crowell to co-produce the record, lending a new level of flare to the track.
"He has all these cool sounds and vibes, and we had already made music together for a while," says Hunt. "One of the last things we did was, we went in and we recorded all these voices in the background. So you hear us in the background in Zach's house, hollerin' and not making much sense, just sounding like we're having a party behind the song. When I heard [the song] in that version I finally thought, 'OK, this finally has everything it needs. I think this song has potential.'"
"Leave the Night On" shot to the top of the country charts, and was quickly placed in heavy rotation on country radio.
"I do remember getting a call from my mom the first time she heard it [on the radio], and she was over the moon," says Hunt. "Actually, I think I missed the call. She sent me a text with lots of exclamation points and emojis. She was just really excited, 'cause it's hard for me to educate [my family] and bring them up to speed on all the things that are happening that don't really make as much sense to them. But being on the radio is definitely easy to understand. They knew that that represented good things happening, so that was special to share that with them."
Hunt's debut album Montevallo debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart in November, moving 70,000 copies in its first week. Hunt achieved a feat not seen in 22 years, topping the Top Country Albums, Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts in the same week. (Billy Ray Cyrus was the first to do it back in 1992.)
Earlier this year, Hunt kicked off his own headlining tour and is showing off his unique style with his follow-up single, the hip-hop-infused "Take Your Time," which also hit No. 1 on the country charts.
While bro-country reigns supreme in Nashville, Hunt credits songwriters McAnally and Josh Osbourne (with whom he co-wrote Chesney's "Come Over" and, later, "Leave the Night On" and "Take Your Time") with helping him offer a new voice to country music.
"When we wrote for the first time, they were very open minded about going down roads that were different and their actions," Hunt recalls. "That really inspired me to break down some of the boundaries that I was putting on myself as a songwriter and thinking, 'Well I have to fit this mold in Nashville because that's the way everyone else is doing it. If I want to get songs recorded, I have to stick to this,' and they really helped me to branch out and finally find that more authentic voice that hopefully I'm on to now as an artist."
Oh, did we mention that he's also an athlete and a scholar? As if natural good looks and musical talent weren't enough, Hunt served as the starting quarterback at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He would later be invited by the NFL to attend training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Hunt says that his dedication to football helped pave his way in Music City.
"After graduating college, I was coming out of a routine I'd been in for several years, all the way back to high school," he says. "It was a year-round process of constantly having to work and be disciplined, and I was able to understand and connect the dots between all those characteristics -- especially hard work and success... When I moved to Nashville, I was able to stay the course and not get distracted by a lot of the things that can easily be distracting in Nashville. Just keep that work ethic up. I was playing catch up as a musician, I'd only been playing for a few years. I moved to Nashville and all these people were so talented, they'd been doing it their whole lives, so I felt way behind the curve [and] I had to catch up."
Catch up, he did. But Hunt remains modest.
"I've made some gains, at least."
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