Album Review – Sam Hunt’s “Southside”

If true country music is dead, then Sam Hunt’s DNA is all over the crime scene. As the man who single-handedly eroded more barriers between popular music genres than anyone else in the modern era, it is he who you can point the ugly finger of blame towards for the fact that most all modern music sounds the same regardless of what radio channel or major playlist you land on.

It’s been six years since Sam Hunt’s debut record Montevallo hit the streets. Six years is an eternity in music. In less than six years, The Grateful Dead went from performing 16-minute frenetic acid jams to playing acoustic country. The Beatles went from playing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” for screaming teens to releasing Sgt. Peppers. If you begrudgingly want to give credit to Sam Hunt for something, it would be for having the gall and intestinal fortitude to release EDM and urban talk-singing to the country market to a degree that had never been done before. Sam Hunt wasn’t innovative from a musical standpoint whatsoever. If anything he was derivative and predictable. He was just pioneering in how he marketed and labeled it.

Yet here Sam Hunt is a full six years later, releasing basically the same drivel as before, yet still receiving credit for being innovative, boundary-pushing, and genre-bending. Sam Hunt already bent the genres to the point where they’re now broken. And six years later, his ruse of releasing pop music to country feels even more derivative and dated. Give him credit for opening the floodgates if you want. But now there is an army of “country” artists hitting #1 in country with click tracks, culturally-appropriating Eubonic inflections, and bad writing. Sam Hunt is just one of many, while the performers who deserve credit for being boundary-pushing, innovative, and risk-taking these days are the ones who have the courage to sing actual country music.

This is just one way Sam Hunt shows a lack of growth on his second record Southside, which feels very much like Montevallo 2.0. It felt a little slimy to listen to Sam Hunt recite itineraries of club hopping and tail chasing back when he was 30. Now half a decade later, it’s even more slippery when he’s singing about trying to convince some poor girl to arrest her inhibitions to get drunk and screw because in the future she can chalk it all up to being “young once.” Hunt broaches similar subject matter in “Sinning With You,” which basically recounts high school sex undermining youth group abstinence pledges.

This is music for 15 to 21-year-olds, and commonly throughout this record, Sam Hunt proves he has the emotional immaturity it takes to write and perform such material, from the inane smartphone and social media references in “Hard To Forget” and “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90’s,” to the outright downgrading and passive-aggressively misogynistic tone of “That Ain’t Beautiful” with its horrible talk-sing verses. Sam Hunt just seems to refuse to grow up, and judging from Southside, the center of his emotional universe is an iPhone and Instagram account.

Southside reaches its disturbing apex with the final song “Drinkin’ Too Much” that carries with it a level of specificity into Sam’s personal life that no person in the public eye should ever share. I’m not caught up on the details of Sam Hunt’s relationship status, but if I was the woman he’s singing to in this song, it would be the grounds for a restraining order, and an incredible sense of public embarrassment. When it comes to love, Sam Hunt seems to have the same emotional self-awareness of Michael Scott from The Office.

And of course all of this is going on while in the foreground is the most unforgivable electronic production elements and fatuous styling that immediately disqualifies this work as something suitable to label as being from the rural or agrarian portion of society or culture.

But to give credit where credit is due, Southside is surprisingly dark in moments when it comes to subject matter. Forget “Body Like A Backroad”—which of course was released three years ago and appears here, once again underscoring the dated and delayed nature of this material. There’s a lot about breakup and regret in this record. It’s just that it’s presented so poorly by how Hunt processes and communicates these emotions in such a shallow and immature manner.

And yes, there is a slightly surprising amount of “country” elements that made it on this record as well, at least for a Sam Hunt operation. The opening song “2016” is by far and away the best song Sam Hunt has ever written and recorded. You almost have to check the label to make sure you didn’t pick up the wrong record. Intimate, moving, and underpinned with steel guitar, if he delivered a whole record like this, we’d be having an entirely different conversation. But ultimately “2016” just proves that Sam Hunt is frittering away whatever genuine talent he might have on trend chasing and pop radio acceptance, and that he knows better.

In the six years since his last album, Sam Hunt has spent time adrift, pondering retirement or a career change, and at times alluding that even he sees the shallowness in his efforts, and feels trapped by commercial expectations. But any efforts to right the ship or fight back on Southside are fleeting—a little whiff of a steel guitar line or mandolin here or there, while the prevailing style is still something predominately or exclusively suited for pop radio, and the teen mindset.

Country music fans don’t cue up records hoping to be disappointed. Sam Hunt and Southside might be perfectly fine for the pop realm. But along with confusing the public about what country is and leading to conflict, Sam Hunt also chiseled the path for performers with inferior talent or appeal who would never make it in pop to follow the road to Nashville and call themselves country, where the genre’s supposed “gatekeepers” seem to be snoozing on the job. As long as it makes dollars, it makes sense to call it country to the money changers who’ve taken root in country music’s institutions. And we have Sam Hunt in part to thank for that.

But Southside is so 2014, even with the very slight and fleeting attempts to country it up. Since Sam Hunt first appeared in the country genre and did his worst, we’ve seen Chris Stapleton explode, Sturgill Simpson win a Grammy, Tyler Childers and Cody Jinks emerge, and Luke Combs become the biggest thing in all of country music. Their success is partly due to the backlash against performers like Sam Hunt, songs like “Body Like a Backroad,” and albums such as Southside.

Sam Hunt will sell some records, and radio will play his singles. But Southside will soon be forgotten for the same reasons Sam Hunt is remembered—for not straddling lines, but erasing them, along with the important diversity and variety of creative expression that makes genres important, and country a unique expression of American music.

Two Guns DOWN (1/10)