Sam Hunt is the kind of 31-year-old Southern charmer you bring home to your mom. At his first-ever Grammys red carpet this past year, he donned a tailored, baby-pink suit that hugged his six-foot-four former athlete's frame, his thick brown hair slicked back into a modest pompadour in the style of "Suit & Tie"-era Justin Timberlake.
He writes about growing up hunting and fishing on his family's land in the small town of Cedartown, Georgia, population less than 10,000, and calls his grandfathers on both sides "two strong men of great integrity."
On the platinum-selling single "Take Your Time," off his debut album Montevallo, Hunt insists, "I don't wanna steal your freedom/I don't wanna change your mind." His voice between choruses is low and soft, more of a mumbled, spoken confession than melodic, down-home storytelling.
In short, Sam Hunt is a modern country heartthrob whose journey from college quarterback to Nashville songwriter to genre-crossing industry "it" boy has shifted into a hyperspeed over the past couple of years as he went from penning songs for Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban to being named the American Music Awards' New Artist of the Year in 2015 and sharing the Grammy stage with Carrie Underwood in 2016.
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"That was my first time being at the Grammys, and obviously performing at the Grammys, so that was really cool, and I'm glad that I was able to perform with someone I'm such a big fan of," Hunt says shortly after returning from another big first — a small string of performances and meetings in Europe.
Though his star seemingly rose rapidly, Hunt has been plugging away in the traditional Nashville style over the course of nearly a decade. He first picked up the guitar in college, where he taught himself to play and began writing his own songs after football practices. After an unsuccessful stint in NFL training camp, Hunt took the plunge and moved to Nashville, where his music career began in earnest. Years into writing songs for big stars behind the scenes, Hunt's first record was finally released by MCA Nashville in 2014. Montevallo became the first debut country record to have all of its singles peak on the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Despite all of his recent success, the new country star admits the shift into a fast-paced, highly visible lifestyle hasn't always been easy. "Home is always home," he says when asked whether life on the road takes a toll. "Not being able to go back to Cedartown and see those people and experience all those things, all those elements that made it home, you know, that can be a bit of a bummer sometimes, when months and months go by and I haven't had a chance to go back. But if I was going to sacrifice that time spent at home for anything, I would definitely want it to be for music. So I don't complain."
Hunt seems adamant about staying true to his country roots. Though his R&B-tinged, oftentimes brooding style allows for opportunities to stand out in country and to cross over into other areas of the music industry, it's his Southern roots and strong family ties that help keep him grounded.
Many of his band and crew were close friends before "the whole music thing," says Hunt. "It's a lot easier to stay on the beaten path and stay focused and stay grounded when you have those people around who would be your buddies if you were doing anything, whatever you might be doing in life... We can hold each other accountable that way, so it's a lot easier to keep your head on straight when you're out in all this craziness."
Apart from a close-knit inner circle, memories from back home and traces from his former life as an athlete inform Hunt's music and lifestyle choices. Of his grandfathers, with whom he was very close, Hunt says, "I take them on as memories. I'm able to use that as something to reflect on when the going gets tough... Memories like that are good to carry around with you."
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And for a strapping young country star with a decidedly edgier, urban style, staying fit is actually more about "quality of life" than fitting a certain image. In his free time, Hunt enjoys jumping in on the occasional "pickup basketball game down at the Y" and bumps "upbeat hip-hop music" when he trains at the gym. He mentions he might enjoy collaborating with someone in the style of rising R&B artist Torey Lanez at some point in the future, though right now he's focused on his own projects.
"I'm still sort of trying to find the direction I want to take with the next record as a whole," he says. Though there's no release date as of yet, Hunt expects something late this year or early next. "Regardless of when it's finished, I'm excited about being back in the studio and back writing songs, because it's hard for me to do two things at once — I didn't do a lot of writing when I was touring so much last year. It's nice to be home. As much as I enjoy touring, it's nice to be back in Nashville. I need that in my life."
6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 16, at Tortuga Music Festival, along Fort Lauderdale Beach, 1100 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Single-day tickets start at $100; three-day general-admission tickets start at $199. Visit tortugamusicfestival.com.