It’s not just that Sam Hunt isn’t country. It’s that Sam Hunt is the exact opposite of country. Quite literally. If you want to hear a song that is the direct antithesis of what a country song is, listen to a song by Sam Hunt. Country equals rural. Urban equals city. It’s very simple to understand. Country music is of the country. Urban music is of the city. And Sam Hunt is urban music.
Sam Hunt’s new song “Downtown’s Dead” is about a city. He uses references to the bustling and alive nature of an urban area as the setup to the premise of the song. “The city’s so in style, all you see for miles are people spilling in and out of cars” says the first line. The second verse starts off with the line, “Dancing in the strobes out here in the throws of loud house music.”
City style, and a bustling downtown street where people are spilling out of cars is not a country landscape. It is a city landscape. References to dancing in strobes to house music is quite literally the exact opposite of the experience of enjoying country music. That doesn’t mean that cities can’t be referenced in country songs. In fact country songs have referenced cities quite often in history to contrast the values and landscapes of the city with the country. But in the case of Sam Hunt’s “Downtown’s Dead,” the city is used to contrast the feeling of emptiness and loneliness in his heart. Not a bad premise for a song on the surface. But it’s in no way country.
Sonically, country music also has significant identifiers to distinguish it from distinctly urban music. But “Downtown’s Dead” doesn’t include them. Instead it includes the sonic elements that are the fundamental elements of urban music, like digitally-enhanced playback, and drum machine beats. None of these elements are bad necessarily. But they’re not country.
When it comes to arguments of whether Sam Hunt is country or not, there’s really nothing up for interpretation, or debate. This is not an argument of taste, or even perspective. In the case of “Downtown’s Dead,” it’s not even one about quality. As a pop song, perhaps “Downtown’s Dead” is an admirable effort, even above average in its attempts at musical illustration, and it’s use of songwriting and composition to convey a personal sentiment. But it’s not country. There is no possible way to identify it as such. And so instead of the song being received upon its own merits, it is an immediate flashpoint of ridicule and rebuke, and even anger. Because it’s not country.
Sam Hunt doesn’t give a shit about country music. It’s questionable if Sam Hunt cares about music at all at this point. His music could completely destroy the 90-year lineage of country music as a commercial enterprise, and it wouldn’t even result in a night of restless sleep for him. He has no passion for country music. Music is simply an economic engine to allow him to live the type of untethered lifestyle he chooses.
“At this point … I’ve gotten into some other things outside of music that I really enjoy. Just other interests of mine that have nothing to do with music,” Hunt said recently. “I don’t know where my career will go from here, but my sole focus hasn’t been on making music all the time like it was in my 20s. I’m not writing as many songs. My interests have changed.”
That’s why we didn’t see Sam Hunt at the recent ACM Awards where he won Single of the Year for “Body Like a Backroad.” He doesn’t give a shit. Sam Hunt holds the record for the longest-charting #1 single in the history of country music and by some 10 weeks, and doesn’t even care enough to show up to accept his awards.
Sam Hunt goes on to say, “I’ve been writing songs that I don’t really feel are representing me, so I haven’t put out a record in the past year.” He’s said similar things in the past as well. It’s not just that Sam Hunt doesn’t care, it’s that Sam Hunt knows that songs like “Body Like a Backroad” are stupid, vapid, immature young-adult garbage too, only relevant to a very minute window of the human experience. He’ll take the paycheck for recording the song of course. But he has no desire to continue the ruse. It would almost be admirable if not for the fact that “Body Like a Backroad” has done so much damage to the sonic integrity of the country music genre, Sam Hunt could be the singlemost destructive artist in the genre’s history.
But don’t misunderstand criticisms of Sam Hunt’s sloth and passionless disposition towards music as a message that we want more active participation from him. It has been four years since Sam Hunt released his debut album Montevallo, and the historic success of “Body Like a Backroad” has obfuscated the fact that Sam Hunt’s lack of passion has resulted in a sweet window where new music from him has been scant. But this may not matter much. The success of Montevallo and “Body Like a Backroad” have launched scores of doppelgangers populating country music’s ranks, and Sam set the table for the very pop invasion of country we are in the midst of today, unarguably ushering in country music’s most sincere existential threat to date.
“Downtown’s Dead” is not some cliché-riddled, vacuous and shallow song in a similar vein as “Body Like a Backroad.” But it’s arguably Sam Hunt’s most non-country song yet in a distinctly non-country career, making it just as dangerous and unwelcome. Of course this won’t hinder the song’s ascent on the charts. But it’s success will result in yet another quaking fissure in the integrity of country music and it’s ability to define itself amid the onslaught of the monogenre. That is the reason it’s worthy to bestow “Downtown’s Dead” with the utmost of failing grades, regardless of it’s quality. You ask a food critic to judge a plate of bean enchiladas as a chicken Marsala entree, and it will fail every time.
It’s not downtown that is dead. It is the country that is dead, forgotten by the modern urbanized perspective, paved over by progress, rebuked by culture as being outmoded and ignorant, and impugned due to political rancor. And we have people like Sam Hunt to thank for it.