Is Sam Hunt Bending Country Music’s Rules?

Singer-Songwriter Follows His Own Course on Debut Album

When you think of country outlaws, you probably think of the usual and rightful suspects such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash — all defiant and definitive icons and legends.

In our contemporary climate, it’s artists like Eric Church who are break rules loudly and proudly, sticking to their guns and art while refusing to change it for anything or anyone.

Chances are, Sam Hunt‘s smooth voice might not put him first in your mind as you define the words “renegade” and “outlaw,” but the newcomer is breaking rules in his own way as he introduces audiences to his debut album, Montevallo. Staying true to himself and not changing his sound for anyone, the project is garnering favorable buzz for being a little left-of-country center and roaming off the typical path taken by a lot of male country artists these days.

But not everyone has been so quick to praise Hunt’s unique sound.

During his recent CMT on Tour stop at the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Hunt took a moment during his pop-and-R&B-infused country set to get personal with the crowd and address an issue that, unbeknownst to his audience, has apparently come up as he attempts to kick-start his career.

“I’ve had a lot of folks tell me that my songs weren’t quite country because they didn’t really sound like anybody that had come along and done it before me,” he said. “I felt a little out of place for a while.”

Rather than being discouraged by such remarks, Hunt chose to consider it a compliment to his individuality.

“I realized that I could try to sound like Waylon Jennings, or I could try to be like Waylon Jennings … but it’s impossible to do both,” he told the crowd in Nashville. “Because when Waylon stood up here on the stage at the Ryman, he didn’t sound like anybody that ever stood up here before him.”

After he delivered that heartfelt speech, he took his guitar and launched into an acoustic version of Jennings’ “Belle of the Ball” that was so beautiful and so perfectly executed, it nearly had me in tears.

So don’t let the R&B-tinged vocals, sporadic hip-hop beats and occasional pop leanings of Hunt’s debut record fool you. His roots are steeped in classic and contemporary country, and his lyrics on his debut album prove it.

“To me, country songs are simple,” Hunt said from the stage. “They’re truthful songs about life — written by country people.”