review: Marla Cantrell

Sam Hunt, twenty-nine, is movie star gorgeous, six-foot three inches tall, and proud to be Southern. His hometown is Cedartown, Georgia. His alma mater is the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He played football there, was the quarterback, and threw 1,900 passing yards in a single season. But it’s his rise as a new country star that has people talking, that has people weighing in on his debut album, Montevallo, which is named for a town in Alabama.

One of the highlights on the album is “Cop Car,” a tune originally written for  Keith Urban. The song is about a young couple, sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck in the no-trespassing zone late at night, and the chaos that follows when officers show up. The song was a big hit for Urban, but that didn’t stop Hunt from putting his own spin on it.

There’s been a lot of talk about Hunt and what to call his brand of country. He, like many other young stars, is bringing his own ideas to the discussion of what country music is. And while he was influenced by greats like Merrell Haggard, whose covers he often plays, he likes other kinds of music, like pop and Americana, and both show up in his recordings.

On this album, the anchor song is “Leave the Night On.” It’s about a small town where the sidewalks get rolled up after dark, where shops shut down early and restaurants close when the working crowd heads home for the night. Hunt’s voice is perfect for this number, this anthem for young love and adventure. “It’s still early out in Cali,” he sings, trying to make his case for staying out late, and then sways the girl still on the fence about whether to stay home or go out by telling her “you’re killing in those Levi’s.”

There’s a play on words in “Ex to See,” about a girl using a new guy to make her old guy jealous. Hunt’s voice is sweet and sultry and flirty and perfectly upbeat.

“Break Up in a Small Town,” begins with a spoken monologue and then swells into a musical number. There’s a lot of angst in this song, the story of a couple breaking up and the girl moving on with a mutual acquaintance. If you now live in a small town, or ever have, you know the feeling of dread when you leave your house with a broken heart, afraid you’ll see your ex with someone new, while you’re still aching from the split.

Not every song on this debut album will hit the right chord with traditional country fans, but enough of them do for you to try this bright new talent. Hunt’s story alone is enough to draw interest: his life as a football player in high school, as a basketball player in high school, the image of him picking up an old guitar when he was eighteen and teaching himself to play.

As for the debate on whether or not Hunt’s country is country enough, the answer is simple: He’s a country boy writing and singing songs about country folks. And for him, that’s the definition of true country music.

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