Sam Hunt had the hottest song of 2017 with "Body Like a Back Road." After a few months in hiding to enjoy time as a newlywed, Hunt is back with new music. Or is he?

Don't put Sam Hunt in a box. The "Downtown's Dead" singer is at the forefront of the progressive country music movement, and he recognizes that songs from his Montevallo album opened new gateways for other R&B-influenced, Southern-raised country singers.

But don't pigeonhole him.

If there were an award for Most Trolled, Hunt would win it. Attacks on his country credibility fall like raindrops in a Tennessee April. He gets it — the sound, the swagger, the pop-crossover success ... it all makes for a pretty convincing book cover for a story that has only partially been told. During stops on last year's 15 in a 30 Tour, Hunt did little to countrify covers of songs by Usher and R. Kelly, Outkast and DrakeMariah Carey and Whitney Houston. His album — and by extension, his tour — is a product of pop culture, he'll admit.

2018 begins a new chapter. His headlining set at the Taste of Country Music Festival included a surprising honky-tonk breakdown framed by barroom imagery. From a bar stool the superstar strummed through "Brand New Man," "Heads Carolina, Tails California," "Goodbye Earl," "Where the Green Grass Grows" and "Ain't Goin' Down Til the Sun Comes Up." Yeah, he's covered Reba McEntire and Travis Tritt before, but he's never made classic country the centerpiece of his live show.

Settling into a worn, black leather couch before his headlining set, Hunt told Taste of Country that he's hesitant to show this side of his artistry — the side more inspired by Alan Jackson than Michael. His next studio album won't deviate too far from Montevallo, he says, but it's hard to imagine this yearning to show a "more pure" version of himself staying caged for very long.

The country music pendulum swings traditional to pop-tinged country every few years, but is it a natural swing, as interests ebb and flow? Or does it swing because someone shoves it? The answer may come from an unexpected source ready to break out of his box.

Who is the last artist you played on iTunes or Spotify?
This guy named Tyler Childers.

The Americana, traditional country music singer — really? That would shock some people.
Yeah, I know. That’s the music I grew up on and really love and I discovered him through a buddy a few months ago and have been listening to him a lot.

People are always calling new artists "the next Sam Hunt." Are you aware of your influence on country music?
Sometimes I’ll hear a new artist or a song that sounds really familiar. I don’t know necessarily if it’s influenced by me, but it sounds like they’re influenced by my influences.

You opened the door so people like Walker Hayes or maybe Kane Brown could come through.
That’s cool to know because I was able to walk through a gate that was a little broader because of some artists that came before me. So I think that's part of the evolution.

Like who?
Taylor Swift, for instance. She really expanded the country music appeal and the boundaries of what we can do musically, I feel like.

Maybe Florida Georgia Line as well, even though they were only about a year ahead of you.
Yeah, they definitely tapped into something as well that shifted things a little bit.

Jason Kempin, Getty Images
Jason Kempin, Getty Images

On the flip side, has there been anyone on the other side of music that is a fan of your music that has surprised you?
I can’t think of anybody specifically who I’d be able to name, but I do ... we judge what we think people’s musical tastes would be when we see a stranger. It’s part of human nature. I have a lot of people who come up to me who I would not imagine — who I would have not guessed have liked my music — who come up and say, ‘Hey I didn’t necessarily listen to country music before I heard your music, but I’m into country music now.' The traditional country music fans are a little easier to spot. Some of the new fans that have come on board, I wouldn’t have predicted.

I guess I did the same thing at the beginning of our conversation by being surprised that Tyler Childers is an artist you're listening to.
Yeah, exactly. That’s an example of that same thing at work. It's human nature — there's nothing wrong with it.

You’ve talked a little bit about how traveling and the mission trip you did with your wife has inspired you. Is there a tangible way that inspiration will play out in your music or life?
So far, my music has been influenced by pop culture. And I’ve used my pop culture foresight to create a sound that I thought would be effective in today’s times. 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.

That's really interesting. To some degree now, those doors have been opened again for you to do that much like other doors were opened for you in the beginning, because of Chris Stapleton. He's kind of opened doors for people to show their deep, traditional country roots again.
Yeah. 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.”

You just need a Chris Gaines-like alter ego.
Yeah (laughs). That would be awesome to have just multiple different personalities to put out music under.

Do you feel guilty a little bit about being away and having this success?
Yeah, sometimes. It’s a tricky thing because we just got married a year ago and we’ve talked about having kids and she’s like “Well I want us to spend our time together before we have kids.” With as busy as I’ve been with music it hasn’t really felt like we’ve gotten to have that young adult marriage time to really bond. So we’ve compartmentalized that a little bit and tried to also incorporate that into what I’m doing as we tour and do this music thing. It’s just such a blessing that we're figuring it out and we're making it work.

What’s Hannah's favorite song that you’ve written about her?
I’ve written a lot of songs inspired by her. Not many of them are specifically about her. She’s inspired a lot of them. Writing a song about her is such an intimidating thought that I haven’t really tried to tackle that yet but I’m working on maybe doing that in the future.

See Photos of Sam Hunt from the 2018 Taste of Country Music Festival

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