As Sam Hunt’s new godawful and indisputably non-country single “Body Like a Backroad” rockets up the charts and looks to make him an established major music superstar, the sychophants are coming out of the woodwork to glam on to his success and hope perhaps some of that attention will rub off on them. This was the case at the ACM Awards in early April in an interview Sam Hunt did with country duo Big & Rich.
It’s started off with the same inane, oafish, stupid banter most of these throw-away backstage interviews do, but then veered way off the page into a moment of country music sacrilege when John Rich decided to evoke the immortal name of Johnny Cash in comparison to Sam Hunt.
“Your style mimic(s) a lot of the old school great guys,” John Rich said, while surprisingly not getting struck by lightning for such a doozy, “And I don’t think a lot of people would maybe make this comparison, but I do. Like if you think about Johnny Cash for instance. You don’t sound like Johnny Cash, but Johnny Cash was incorporating rock n’ roll, Gospel, and all kinds of things into what he called, ‘That’s my brand of country music.’ And people said, ‘Johnny Cash isn’t country. He’s singing about subjects we don’t allow on the Opry’ and all this stuff.”
John Rich went onto compare Sam Hunts “non-country” troubles to the blowback Conway Twitty and Alabama also faced in their careers (see entire exchange below).
Though it’s true all three of these artists faced criticism for not being country enough early in their careers, as did many more artists including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and others that went on to define the sound of country music for a generation, they all had one thing in common: their music was more country than it was anything else. The other thing they had in common was their music was actually good.
The arguments about what is country and what isn’t are tired and worn out and timeless as country music itself. But think about it like this: If you took Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Backroad,” and played if for some random person on the street who had never heard the song or Sam Hunt before and asked them “What genre is this?” nearly everyone you questioned would tell you it’s either pop, or hip-hop before they would determine it’s country. Even 14-year-old girls who were raised on corporate radio have some sort of barometer on what country music is, and what it isn’t.
Forget all the nuanced disputes about “what is country?” If something fits better in a host of other genres before it fits into country, then it isn’t country, period. And asserting it is country is a dangerous practice that can erode the boundaries around what defines country as a genre, risking a complete implosion of the format similar to what we saw happen to rock years ago.
Johnny Cash, along with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and others working under the auspices of Sam Phillips in the legendary Sun Studios were literally forming the bedrock upon which all popular American music would later stand on. They were true pioneers of original music, and one of the reasons their sounds were similar is because American music genres were still being defined at that time. What Sam Hunt does is a bastardization of all the brilliant work artists like Johnny Cash and others did to make the American music culture the most powerful, transformative, and popular voice of the people in all the world.
Johnny Cash is a titan of American music. Sam Hunt is just another mutt making pop in country.
There is no comparison.