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Sam Hunt Interview: ‘Leave the Night On’ Singer Shares His R&B Influences

Sam Hunt
Sara Kauss, Getty Images

You may not know Sam Hunt yet, but you sort of do. As a solo artist, he has one rising hit in ‘Leave the Night On’ and another in ‘Raised on It,’ a favorite of SiriusXM’s country channel, the Highway. As a songwriter, he has two hits on the radio right now, plus one other smash from 2012. Now signed to MCA Nashville, Hunt has begun a solo career that’s an ocean deep in potential.

Before moving to Nashville, Hunt was the starting quarterback for University of Alabama in Birmingham’s football team. The native Georgian isn’t your stereotypical country boy — in fact, his songs don’t sound anything like most of what’s coming from artists raised in what has become the most prolific country music state. A slick R&B groove pins much of his music. Don’t mistake that for the hard-nosed hip-hop influencing other artists.

"I just got to a point where the songs that I would write and co-write with other co-writers — and looking back at it now it was just a style thing, we just had different styles and tastes."

There is one Georgia-born singer Hunt recalls. He’s a Billy Currington fan, and not just because the singer cut his song ‘We Are Tonight.’ You’ll hear similarities in their styles, as well as the chances they take. A song called ‘Saturday Night’ from Hunt’s ‘Between the Pines’ acoustic mixtape will remind fans of the Shy Carter-influenced cuts on the Currtington’s ‘We Are Tonight’ album.

To a lesser degree, ‘Cop Car’ does, as well. Yes, Keith Urban‘s ‘Cop Car.’ That story is Hunt’s story, and many of the details are pulled from a real-life event with a girl he still talks to. He told ToC all about it, explaining his unusual recording style.

The man behind Kenny Chesney‘s hit ‘Come Over’ will be on the road this fall with Kip Moore on the CMT Tour. He’s just released a sampler of his debut album called ‘X2C.’ Earlier this year, Hunt took the time to chat with Taste of Country about his influences, fears and what changed in his songwriting to get him to this point.

One thing that’s striking about your songwriting is it doesn’t seem like you write with a specific genre in mind.

Yeah, I did that at first, when I first moved to town. When I started not thinking about the boundaries I sort of opened up much easier. It’s a little more natural for me I guess to try to write whatever. Obviously the only thing is your instinct.

But yeah, you’re right. There really wasn’t any one particular genre. It was mostly based in country, but after that it was pretty loose. But I guess that’s the genre in general.

Sam Hunt
MCA Nashville

You said there was a turning point. What clicked for you that you flipped gears?

I was writing as an artist I guess, but I was also wanting to write and get tracks to other artists. But I just got to a point where the songs that I would write and co-write with other co-writers — and looking back at it now it was just a style thing, we just had different styles and tastes — I was writing these songs … I just didn’t wanna sing songs I was writing. I just didn’t feel like they represented me very well, and I sort of got frustrated with that and kind of got to a point where I was like, if I have to bend or box in this thing to be country, then maybe that’s not the route for me.

At the same time, some artists started putting out songs on the radio that started to break down some boundaries and sort of opened up that door again with me, where it was like, I can maybe still be an artist and do the music and fit it in with the genre of country now that the gates are sort of widening.

Shane McAnally is a really good friend of mine. He’s one of the first guys that really embraced what I was doing with an open mind. I remember hearing some of his demos and I went in to write the first time with him and Josh Osborne. I was at that point of frustration where I decided I’m going to go in and play ‘em this idea that’s different, and they completely embraced it. We wrote that day, and from there, we just sort of struck a relationship up and started writing and not really thinking of where it would fit in.

Your R&B influences really set you apart. Who are some of your influences from that genre?

I was a big music fan, but I never bought a bunch of records or was very educated, I guess, on who was who or what was what. But I knew songs that I really liked and I’d track ‘em down one way or the other. From the pop side, people like Usher, and when they first came out, I listened to guys like K-Ci and JoJo, that ‘90s R&B thing really caught my ear. R KellyGinuwine, 112. I can’t remember some of the other guys’ names. The other night we had ‘90s R&B night at the house in the kitchen and we just went back and forth playing old R&B songs. It really came and went.

"Some artists started putting out songs on the radio that started to break down some boundaries and sort of opened up that door again with me, where it was like, I can maybe still be an artist and do the music and fit it in with the genre of country now that the gates are sort of widening."

As a new artist, one who is releasing his first few singles, can you introduce an R&B vibe like you find on ‘Saturday Night’ from your ‘Between the Pines’ album?

I don’t know. I’m not really sure who the gatekeepers for that sort of thing are. I don’t know if it’s the people, or if it’s maybe … I’m not really sure on that.

Obviously, I love country music, so I wanna be able to live in the country music genre and then play to country music fans. So hopefully they’re the ones who will decide. ‘Saturday Night’ is one of those ones that’s on the fringe.

II like the rap thing (of ‘Saturday Night’). Just the phrasing of it is how I naturally hear lyrics come out. More words, it’s just like an instrument, like a drum almost. It’s percussive. Not necessarily the attitudes of rap music, but the musical elements of it.

Is that beat boxing? Is someone beat boxing in that song?

Yeah, it actually is. I think you’re the first person that’s noticed that. We really made that mixtape on the spot, so we wanted to change the beats and the different drums on the different songs. So one day we just sort of recorded a beat box thing into a microphone and Zach, the guy who I work with, he’s good at looping it and changing it and tweaking it and turning it in to its own sound.

Are you a better songwriter or quarterback?

I don’t know. I feel like at this point, I’m not sure how much of my quarterback ability I have. But we’ll still get out and play a little big sometimes. And the songwriting thing, hopefully I have a long way to go to get to where I would like to be.

Watch Sam Hunt Perform ‘Leave the Night On’

Next: Sam Hunt Talks Hearing 'Leave the Night On' on the Radio

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