Sam Hunt Keeps It Straightforward and Sincere on ‘Southside’ 

Sam Hunt made a major impact with his 2014 debut album “Montevallo,” demanding attention with his strain of Country, which incorporated hip-hop and R&B influences gleaned from the hybrid music scene of his Georgia hometown. He made history, scoring four number one Country Airplay singles from just that album. Success came too soon, and a refractory period followed, during which experiments with glossy pop producers proved unfruitful and unsatisfying. For his sophomore album, “Southside,” Hunt has reunited with such familiar names as Josh Osbourne (Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney,) Shane McAnally (Thomas Rhett, Kacey Musgraves,) and Zach Cowell (Keith Urban, Florida Georgia Line.) The result is a welcome return to form — a set of heartfelt, catchy tunes that play up to all of Hunt’s attributes.

The album begins with “2016,” a track that stands out for the unguarded vulnerability on display. Hunt has spoken of resisting the industry inclination to make things “too cute,” and this song is the clearest example of this resistance. Hunt wears his heart on his sleeve, keeping it forthright and heartfelt. and the track achieves its impact from the sheer sincerity. The song begins with a basic acoustic guitar backdrop, and Hunt sounds like a broken man, reflecting retrospectively in a moment of clarity, professing, “I’d put the whiskey back in the bottle / Put the smoke back in the joint,” and proceeding through a litany of actions he would undo, before building up to the climactic line, “I’d take 2016 and give it back to you.”

The charged opener gives way to the surefire highlight “Hard to Forget,” easily the most effectively realized example to date of Hunt’s incorporation of hip-hop into country. The song samples Webb Pierce’s 1953 hit “There Stands The Glass,” building a track around the sample the way rappers so often do. In fact, Hunt started with the sample, and wrote the entire song around it. What makes the song groundbreaking is that the sampled material is so outrageously country, of the type that welcomes parody to outsiders. And Hunt pulls it off perfectly, making worlds collide. There’s an infectious beat, a massive chorus of near-yodelling, mirrored by stylistic creaks in the acoustics. Moreover, it takes a certain talent to write lyrics that sound classic upon first listen, even if they’re laughably cliché. Consider the chorus lines of “You’ve got a cold heart and the cold hard truth / I got a bottle of whiskey, but I got no proof.” Now, imagine them sung to a tune that could hardly fit them better.

“Kinfolks,” a song about the simple topic of being smitten enough to about want to introduce a girl to your family, matches what is essentially a hip-hop beat with abundant banjo and guitars that are about as country as it gets. For his vocals, Hunt channels country through R&B, and then through country again. “Young Once” lingers in the same sonic sphere, small town stylings with a slight urban twist. Lyrically, it’s the type of reflective fare you’d expect from the title, with lines like “Cheap thrills, doing things in the wheat fields.” Next, “Body Like a Back Road” is a perfectly executed exercise in expressing affection in the most country of terms. Hip-hop seeps in through silly lines like “Now me and her go way back like Cadillac seats” and in the minimal kick and clap drum track, with a chorus of “Hey, hey” hollers affirming Hunt’s bravado.

A more somber moment comes in “That Ain’t Beautiful,” a poignant number in which Hunt alternates between spoken segments and sung bits, over sparse guitar, running through superficial, worldly, hollow concerns, and always circling back to the titular insistence. “Let It Down” is a typical country song, except for the percussion, which again nods to hip-hop with busy high hats and sharp snares. It turns into a festive jamboree, with a chorus that unabashedly recalls ‘90s country, the sound that Hunt grew up with. A refrain of “If you give me ‘til tomorrow, I’ll be fine” neatly sums up the carefree spirit at the core. The revelry gives way to the more reflective “Downtown’s Dead,” which captures Hunt’s disillusionment with nightlife, born out of his unsatisfying bout with premature fame. While the subject matter might be relatively grave, it builds to the realization “Downtown’s dead without you,” expressed with a sort of revelatory glee. The titular phrase is captured multi-tracked over massive drums, as if a resounding realization.

“Nothing Lasts Forever” is a love song with a rather brilliant angle. Hunt implores, Tell me you feel stupid / Tell me you feel childish,” and continues to substitute negative adjectives for his last word, driving home the idea that it’s better to matter enough to be remembered unfavorably than to simply be forgotten. His voice is especially up close and expressive here, and when he lets out the titular line, the final word trails off, multi tracked and reverberating, with prominent fiddle flourishes here and there. Unanticipated, rickety percussion near the end adds a fresh, raw element.

“Sinning WIth You” is perhaps a slightly risque song for country, with lyrics like “I never felt like I was sinning with you / Always felt like I could talk to God in the morning” With a droney guitar line of just two chords, it could barely be simpler musically, and this fits the primal nature of the sentiment. Another quite brilliant angle for a love song comes in “Breaking Up Was Easy In the ‘90s.” The title alone should have you hooked, and the sound is again appropriately reminiscent of ‘90s country. Hunt reflects, “I’m sick of sittin’ at the house, dyin’ on my phone / Wishin’ I was somewhere I could be alone.” With smartphones, social media, and all, you never really are alone anymore, and it makes one long for the days of yore when, if a relationship turned sour, you wouldn’t be an arm’s length from Instagram. The song features more spoken segments, and Hunt has an ideal voice for it, deep and sonorous, dramatic yet cool and unaffected. 

“Drinkin’ Too Much” brings it all neatly full circle, lapsing into the confessional lamentations that began the record. With a woozy synth backdrop, another spoken bit, another hip-hop beat, the track showcases Hunt’s storytelling craft. Released at midnight on New Year’s Eve 2016, it was written as an apology to Hunt’s ex-girlfriend at the time, with whom he has since married. His narrative detail builds up to the pointed chorus in which he reflects, “Since you been gone, I can’t get gone enough / I’m on top of the world, going down.” The lyrics are timeless and universal, clever enough without trying too hard. When Hunt sings, “There ain’t no way we’re through,” the music cuts out, as if framing this as his last word. Finally, a lone piano comes in for a short and sweet ending, a portion of the traditional hymn “How Great Thou Art,” played by none other than Hunt’s wife, the same woman addressed in this song, and throughout the album.  

“Southside” is not an album to stop you in your tracks, but it’s one with plenty to enjoy. Recent years have shown a surge of artists more freely incorporating hip-hop and R&B influences into country, and Hunt’s particular take on this type of crossover is strikingly original. It seems both fresh and authentic, never gimmicky, as does the album in general. All the songs seem sincere and straightforward, and Hunt has a knack for streamlining his sentiments into infectious lines and hummable tunes. Fans of ‘90s country will especially enjoy the nods to that era. Finally, the structure of the album, beginning with regrets, and ending with a touching, subtle gesture of triumph, makes it altogether an especially compelling work. 

Southside” is available April 3 on Apple Music.