It’s certainly not your momma’s taste of traditional country, yet Montevallo's honoring of storytelling roots makes it one of the great modern country classics.
Sam Hunt’s Montevallo was the sort of debut album guaranteed to cause a stir. When it was released in October 2014, his particular blend of pop, R&B and country didn’t fare too well with genre purists 一 with even the likes of Billboard claiming the record “has little to identify it as country”.
An Alabama boy at heart, Hunt grew up on the music of Alan Jackson and Brad Paisley, among a host of other influences from Usher to Alice Cooper, so it’s not a surprise he’d pull together all of these touchpoints for his first outing.
The commercial set-up for the album launch was also hard to ignore. Released earlier that summer, lead single ‘Leave the Night On’ smashed through radio with a no.26 bow on the Billboard Hot Country Songs (eventually climbing to the summit), crowned the Country Airplay leaderboard and sent shockwaves across the Hot 100.
It set the stage for the album to bow at no.1 on Top Country Albums and no.3 on the Billboard 200 with 70,000 copies sold. Upon its release, Hunt became the first male star to lead on both Hot Country Songs and Top Country Albums in the same tracking week, following Billy Ray Cyrus who achieved the same feat 22 years prior.
But his chart success didn’t stop there. ‘Take Your Time,’ the second single, crept higher on the Hot 100 for a no. 20 placement, crashed the country charts and seemed to find an audience on Hot AC/AC. It went on to be certified 5x platinum over by the RIAA (as of October 2019) and essentially cemented the singer-songwriter as a modern-day renegade.
Sam Hunt had staked his claim, and he was not going anywhere.
It’s easy to shrug off his commercial success as a product of major label muscle. You’d be partially right, but that would undercut the work he displayed across a slick 10 tracks. At its root, Montevallo, named after his hometown, anchored itself in bonafide country storytelling.
‘Leave the Night On’ and ‘House Party’ shimmered with the kind of playfulness you’d find in Jackson’s ‘Chattahoochee’ or Tracy Byrd’s ‘Watermelon Crawl’.
‘Raised On It’ barreled through the backroads dust in the same way Tim McGraw did with ‘I Like It, I Love It’ and ‘Something Like That.’
Small-town living echoed across the album, ranging from the gleeful celebration of heritage to lamenting unbearable county lines. With ‘Break Up in a Small Town,’ Hunt attempted to move on with his life but was forced to see his ex all over town. ‘Make You Miss Me’ stung with the same sorrow, his heart burning red hot in both desperation and determination to haunt his ex; “I ain’t going to be that easy to leave”, he vowed.
Hunt shone brightest with entries like smash single ‘Take Your Time’; piano and guitar twinkling in the arrangement. “I don't have to make you love me / I just want to take your time,” he yearned on the sweeping chorus.
He toggled between speaking in a syncopated pattern on the verses to gliding with tenderness on the hooks, a switch-up Conway Twitty (‘Hello Darlin’), Chris LeDoux (‘This Cowboy’s Hat’), Bill Anderson (‘Still’), and countless other artists, were well-versed in.
Much later, ‘Cop Car’, a Hunt co-write first recorded by Keith Urban in 2013, swirled with the wistfulness of Deana Carter’s ‘Strawberry Wine’ and Brooks & Dunn’s ‘Red Dirt Road.’ “You were so innocent / But you were stealing my heart / I fell in love in the back of a cop car,” he swooned. Written in the past tense, he gazed fondly upon his youthful abandon and the people, places and things which built him.
Kissed by heartbreak and nostalgia, Montevallo arrived when winds of change were gently blowing. Bro-country, a term coined by journalist Jody Rosen about the proliferation of party songs in the early 2010s, was on its way out. In August 2015, while ‘House Party’ was on the charts, Billboard observed, “There are fewer songs coming out of Nashville right now that could be defined that way.”
Florida Georgia Line’s 2012 hit ‘Cruise’ was a trend-setter, prompting a host of knock-offs from even contemporaries like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. The trend would eventually fizzle out completely, yet Hunt’s ‘House Party’ both embraced the trend and attempted to shatter it. “If you're gonna be a homebody / We're gonna have a house party,” he sang. It’s far less a bro-country party anthem than it is a three-minute pick-up line.
Hunt swapped meaningless radio fodder for the deeply romantic and heartbroken. He became his own Conway Twitty. In the years following Montevallo, mainstream country pivoted to more R&B-influenced songs, including such standouts as Keith Urban’s ‘Blue Ain’t Your Color’, Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush’, Chris Lane’s ‘Fix’ and Thomas Rhett’s ‘Die a Happy Man’.
In its own way, Montevallo upended the country establishment. It’s certainly not your momma’s taste of traditional country, yet its honoring of storytelling roots makes it one of the great modern classics.
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