Sam Hunt led an early decade pop invasion in country music, and now he wants to retreat. How he does it, if he can do it and who will come with him is the most fascinating thing happening in country music in 2019.

The 34-year-old singer and songwriter from Polk County, Georgia has taken every opportunity to tout his country cred in recent interviews, backing it up with honest, personal covers of country hits and throwbacks. On Friday night (June 14) at Country Jam in Colorado, Hunt once again covered Waylon Jennings' "Belle of the Ball," a song he last approached at Stagecoach a few weeks earlier but has been caught performing as far back as 2016, when he strummed an acoustic version at CRS in Nashville.

It's a head-turning, room-quieting rendition. He rides the crests of the melody before diving deep back into the soft heart of a tender love song. If you're skeptical about Hunt's intentions, start here:

On the topic of his next album (which he'll begin recording this month), Hunt says he's starting with just a pen and guitar. That matters.

"The songs typically, when you pick up a guitar and write ‘em on a guitar there’s a different spirit about it," he says. "They tend to go more singer-songwriter … even more traditional, in terms of the genre." Later he shares that bluegrass music is influencing him right now, but not necessarily his music. An album of traditional country songs (with or without bluegrass overtones) would give his fans whiplash, though, and he knows it.

"I still feel the pressure because of the songs in in the past that have created kind of an expectation," Hunt told the Boot on Friday, "so that's what's been tough."

This echoes what he told Taste of Country in 2018:

Sometimes I struggle with it because you know I have this sound that I came up with. We got fans now that like that sound so sometimes I hesitate to deviate too much from what we’ve been doing because I don’t know if my fans’ tastes are as eclectic as my own as a songwriter. So that can be a tricky thing when I’m writing songs. Sometimes I’ll write a song that I feel is me authentically but if some of our fans heard me playing that song they would think, 'That doesn’t sound like a Sam song.'

Will the real Sam Hunt please stand up?

He's about to. Forgotten are Hunt's early proclamations that artists like Alan Jackson and Conway Twitty were more important to him than Usher at first — he even once claimed he could recite every lyric of every song on country radio in the 1990s. That's surely an exaggeration, but even at half-true it's pretty dang country!

Remember this when debating how Hunt's sound fits into country music today: it's not his lyrics and themes that draw ire from traditionalists, as proven by his 2013 acoustic mixtape Between the Pines. Those songs are country in the way Jackson and Twitty were, and two notable songs ("Come Over" for Kenny Chesney and "I Met a Girl" for William Michael Morgan) became hits for artists who are beyond debate.

The slick beats, polished and precise vocals and heightened attention to pop culture on Montevallo are what did more to widen the boundaries of country music than anyone since Taylor Swift. Hunt's sound blasted a hole in the thick wall guarding the format from pop, rap and hip-hop, and artists like Dan + Shay, Walker Hayes and Kane Brown came spilling through with original expressions that traditionalists were quick to claim "weren't real country music." The spectacular success of songs like "Break Up in a Small Town" and "Body Like a Back Road" created Hunt's own walls, so when he says he's dreaming of making a traditional country album, it's reminiscent of what Garth Brooks tried to do with Chris Gaines 20 years ago, but in reverse. The GOAT was purposely trying to be someone else. Hunt wants to be himself, but in doing so he'll surely be labeled a fake or a phony.

"So far, my music has been influenced by pop culture," he told ToC last year. "Now I’m not paying as much attention to that. I think as I continue to write songs, I may lean on country roots I think a little more than where the culture is going, musically. So I don’t know how that will work out, ultimately, but I think it will be fun for me to kind of create a more pure version of the music that’s been influenced by my country background. Tyler Childers is a good example of someone who inspires me as a songwriter and I want to make a record like that at some point, potentially."

From a distance, the whole thing is fascinating. How will Hunt hit a narrow target between who he wants to be and what fans expect from him? It's all a lesson in why one-hit wonders exist: tremendous success builds unattainable expectations that an artist can't or doesn't want to meet, so there's a letdown. He's beyond that now, but if he's going to come close to duplicating the success of his first five years of his career, he needs to win all the Entertainer of the Year awards and maybe open a record label, because at that point it will be obvious he has the Midas touch.

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