Sam Hunt – The Favorite “Country” Toy of Pop Writers

Beyond making a really bad amalgam of derivative and formulaic rap pop by ripping off the styles of Drake and trap beat artists to only then turn around and sell it as country to the gullible masses, Sam Hunt is also superlative at turning hip-hop, pop, and indie rock writers into certified country music experts by the sheer release of new shitty music. When you see phrases such as “I never knew I liked country until I heard Sam Hunt” alongside vociferous praise for his forward-thinking and critically-important version of evolved country, you know you’re consuming the opinions of a dupe whose completely out of their depth.

Another tell tale sign is when they label a site like Saving Country Music as “purist.” That’s what both Slate and Pitchfork did while slathering their praise upon Sam’s most recent monstrosity, Southside. How could two separate writers both come to the same conclusion of Saving Country Music’s place in the country world in the first couple of paragraphs of their Sam Hunt reviews? Because they’re both working off the same cheat sheet versions of country in media echo chambers.

In truth, most actual country purists can’t wait to see this site throw a 404 Error forevermore. Sorry, but country purists don’t praise artists like John Moreland and Caitlyn Smith. Besides, “purist” is more a code word for “conservative,” which is just as much of an assumption. Last time I checked, I was still blocked by Toby Keith on Twitter.

But anyway, it’s always fun to watch the outside music media fawn over a “country” artist that in their minds undermines rural norms in the ignorant agrarian swaths of dumbfuck America. We saw this a couple of years ago with Kacey Musgraves of course, and last year with Lil Nas X. Sometimes the praise is warranted, which was true in some part with Musgraves. Other times it involves looking the other way over clear and present reductive hogwash and even outright misogyny, objectification, and theft of intellectual property like with Lil Nas X—traits these socially conscious critics would otherwise admonish.

One of the few outside critics who got their assessment of Sam Hunt’s new album Southside right was The Needle Drop, and not just because he gave it a grade of “1.” He called Sam Hunt, “Someone who grabbed my attention thanks to the positive praise he’s been receiving in sections of the music press that usually reserve their pixels for indie bands and trap mixtapes. The average Bro-Country peddler isn’t usually the type of thing that would turn a coastal music writer country curious.”

Something else The Needle Drop got right (and even most country “critics” got wrong) is what a creep fest Sam Hunt’s new song “That Ain’t Beautiful” is. “I’m not sure what about this track is more gross, the tone of the corny spoken word intro, or is it the lyrics that feel like you are gaslighting some girl into liking you.”

Carl Wilson writing for Slate was right on this point as well, calling the song “utterly winceworthy” where “Hunt patronizingly lectures some young lady friend (that seems the appropriate term here) about her drunken misbehaviors at bars and destination weddings … Given all that Hunt is acknowledging he has to repent for—and need I mention his own arrest on a DUI as recently as November?—it’s a bizarre choice to turn around and cast stones. It gives me pause about the new-leaf, family-man stance that Hunt strikes on the majority of Southside. The work of self-reform doesn’t give you license to judge everyone else’s fun, and certainly not, for Christ’s sake (and I invoke that cheek-turner’s name deliberately), in a goddamn country song.”

Listen, if you praised the new song from the Dixie Chicks “Gaslighter,” but somehow side stepped the inherent issues in Sam Hunt’s “That Ain’t Beautiful,” you’re a hypocrite.

Slate is in the clear on this point though, even though their piece which is titled, The Drake of Country Music is Back with a More Thoughtful Take on That Old Town Road is too wrapped up in the writer’s disillusioned Catholicism, and an obsession that Sam Hunt is the direction country music needs.

“For those of us who were rooting for Hunt to really push the bounds of what country is capable of, ‘Southside’ may sound like it barely goes the distance. But by turning its musical hybridity from a novelty into a vehicle to convey that kind of grown-up content—with all the dirt and noise and hurt it implies—it does something better. It proves that fork in the road can lead to someplace a person (or a genre) might want to settle in and stay awhile.”

But why is this reviewer, in their own words, “rooting for Hunt”? And especially to “push the bounds of what country is capable of”? Is that really their place, or is it their place to analyze the music objectively, and as country? And why is it that they only review and advocate for artists like Sam Hunt, and ignore other important artists trying to push country music forward like Ashley McBryde who also just released a new album?

Pitchfork comes to a similar conclusion. “A little off-center is exactly what commercial country, with its endless aesthetic complacency, so desperately needs … [Sam Hunt] proved, once again, that those genres are only as disparate as music marketers would have you believe, and that there’s still plenty more fruit to be borne of their inevitable cross-pollination.”

These reviewers aren’t rooting for Sam Hunt because he’s good or because he’s country, but because he’s decidedly not country, and as non country music fans, they see this as appealing, or some sort of version of progress. Sure, commercial country is stuck in a malaise. But making it sound like other genres is no panacea. It’s a prescription for the monogenre, and a version of cultural appropriation that is an insult to country (and to hip-hop as well) that should be guarded against for reasons that of all things the recent Trolls movie illustrated perfectly, but many of these publications don’t.

In a recent New York Times podcast with Jon Caramanica and sports writer Natalie Weiner (who Caramanica describes as a “Sam Hunt-phile”), the duo once again takes a jab at Saving Country Music (which they’ve done before), before lavishly fawning over Sam Hunt’s brilliance.

But with all due respect, their assessment for Sam’s appeal among country fans is completely wrong. Caramanica asks sports writer Natalie Weiner about Sam Hunt fans, “Do you think those people are people who crave country music innovation, or what he did was kind of access a country music listener that maybe hadn’t been adequately served by everybody else in the genre?”

Natalie Weiner concludes it’s the latter, but this is so completely shortsighted. If we’re being honest, both assessments are probably slightly true, meaning there are some country fans that do crave a little EDM/hip-hop influence in country, and were just waiting for Sam Hunt to come along. But the vast majority of Sam Hunt fans are not native to country. Instead, they’re migrants from white hip-hop and pop who are listening to Sam Hunt in spite of the fact that he’s labeled as “country,” because they deem him safer. It’s like what Steve Earle once said, “They’re just doing hip hop for people who are afraid of black people.”

These aren’t country fans. They’re Sam Hunt fans. Because if you’re an actual country fan, you hate Sam Hunt, or at least you hate Sam Hunt as country, because he isn’t, even if you can appreciate his music for what it is, which is Southern EDM/hip-hop.

Even if you absolutely love Sam Hunt, you can still take the completely intuitive, objective, and correct stance that he is in no way a product of country music. And doing so doesn’t create cultural conflict or friction, it alleviates it. Let Sam Hunt be Sam Hunt. But let country actually be country. Problem solved.

In other words, Sam Hunt’s country fans are the “I never knew I liked country until I heard Sam Hunt” crowd, of which both Jon Caramanica, Natalie Weiner, and many other pop and hip-hop music writers assigned to cover country fall into the category of, which makes them perfectly unqualified to analyze Sam Hunt’s music and his place in country music objectively, yet they’re speaking for what is supposed to be the “newspaper of record.”

Yes, this article is once again Saving Country Music lashing out at other music writers. But these opinions and perspectives are offered respectfully and constructively, and frankly, with a lot more respect than some of these respective writers bring to country music and its fans.

It would be awesome if outlets like Pitchfork and The New York Times wanted to cover more country. When you combine country music with the market share of Americana and Texas/Red Dirt, it is a massive swath of culture that should have more coverage in nationally-oriented periodicals and is going unfairly ignored. But putting pop writers on the case is only going to result in bias and misunderstanding, specifically when it comes to the incursion of pop into country, which is an important topic that deserves more educated analysis, and on both sides of the cultural divide.

But when you push Sam Hunt as an innovator and the future of country music, you’re just proving your lack of understanding. Southside sold decent upon its debut, but is currently being bested in the country album charts by the now nearly 3-year-old record from Luke Combs, This One’s For You, along with Luke’s latest record, What You See Is What You Get, and a 2-year-old album from Morgan Wallen called If I Know Me.

“Innovation” in mainstream country music right now is being defined by actual country music, and songwriters who despite still showing room for improvement, are moving more in the direction of the roots and meaning in music, and away from the vapid era defined by Sam Hunt derivativeness and Bro-Country of the previous decade.

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