Well well well. Apparently Sam Hunt is part human, and is prone to fail, at least partially. That’s the pronouncement many are making after his current single “Downtown’s Dead” stalled at country radio outside the Top 10, and has subsequently had the support behind it pulled by his label MCA Nashville. After one stellar performing single after another, with each one of his six radio songs dating back to 2014 peaking at #1 or #2 on the charts—including his last juggernaut “Body Like a Backroad,” which set the all time record for consecutive weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart at 34—all “Downtown’s Dead” could muster was #14 on Hot Country Songs, and #15 at radio.
Though there are plenty of country music performers in the mainstream or otherwise who would love to boast a Top 20 song of any sort, the stalling of “Downtown’s Dead” is nothing short of shocking and miraculous from an artist like Sam Hunt. Sam could make flatulence noises into a microphone these days, and it would be assured a #1 at country radio simply because he’s a top tier male superstar, and that’s how the system is supposed to operate. So what’s going on?
Though many Sam Hunt detractors are salivating at the idea that his reign of terror as country music’s most non country performer are over, that conclusion may be a bit premature. Sure “Downtown’s Dead” is a dog, but so were all of Sam Hunt’s other singles. There’s a possibility that the pulling of “Downtown’s Dead” could be more strategic on the part of Sam and MCA as opposed to a colossal failure due to poor feedback from reporting radio stations and bad reception from the general public.
First off, “Downtown’s Dead” was only released on May 16th—just over three months ago. That’s almost no time for a current country radio single to mature. Often radio singles are given six to nine months before support is pulled. Though “Downtown’s Dead” arc was slower developing than let’s say “Body Like a Backroad,” there is no doubt that if MCA Nashville had continued to back the single, it would have ended up at #1 in 6 to 12 weeks.
Even more interesting is that right as MCA Nashville was giving up on “Downtown’s Dead,” they released a high-production video for the song shot on location in Mexico. The new video was just released on July 18th. Why break the budget for a video when you’re not going to see the single through? Even if you think the song is a weak performer, you wait and see if the video gives it a boost before pulling support completely.
I don’t think we will truly know what’s going on here until the next shoe falls with Sam Hunt. Perhaps they’re making way for another single they feel will suit their strategy with Sam Hunt better. Maybe they have some promotional deal for a different single worked out with a sponsor. It’s also fair to surmise that perhaps all of Sam Hunt’s space case rhetoric recently has spooked MCA Nashville or disappointed them, and they’re not willing to spend any more money on Sam until he shows a deeper commitment to the music.
One of the last times we heard from Sam Hunt, he was saying, “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. 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.”
Sam Hunt has also been saying recently that he doesn’t really relate to his own music anymore. That’s because he’s 33-year-old and married, and songs like “Downtown’s Dead” are about 20-something club life. Sam Hunt has become a head case over the last year or two, and appears to have no desire to compile a sophomore record for MCA Nashville. Or if he does, he’ll take his sweet ass time doing it. His debut Montevallo was released nearly four years ago now, which is an eternity in album cycle time, especially for a hot artist like Sam Hunt.
Sam Hunt appears to be an intelligent guy who has adopted some self-loathing tendencies similar to the impression many true country fans feel when they hear his music. Yet he also knows what his meal ticket is, and if he can just keep the pop music money train going for a little longer, the grandkids of his grandkids will get taken care of, and he can be freed up to get really into ceramic art, or teaching power yoga, or whatever floats his boat since he appears to see music today as nothing more than a part-time hobby.
Sam Hunt said a year ago, “I don’t want to come off as … I’m not excited about making music or I’m not very hopeful to have new music for the fans who are anxiously awaiting new music, but, you know, I’m in a place in my career and in my life where I’m not willing to give music 100 percent of me anymore. I did that for four years, and it was fruitful as far as my career goes, but everything else in my life had to be put on hold, and I’m just not willing to do that for years and years at a time.”
He’s done. And perhaps MCA is done trying to drag him along. Sam Hunt didn’t even show up to the ACM Awards in April to accept his trophy for Single of the Year for “Body Like a Backroad,” using the wedding of a friend as an excuse. Or perhaps Sam Hunt and MCA Nashville are just saving up dry powder, making way for something big and conspiring together to take the world by storm once again. Sounding any “all clear” signal for Sam Hunt’s influence in pop country seems incredibly premature here until we know exactly what’s going on. The man has just been too record setting over the past for years to be that foolhardy.
In the meantime though, perhaps you can take the weak performance of “Downtown’s Dead” as a positive sign for the quality of country music improving, however guardedly so. Whatever the reason, a Sam Hunt song has been shown to have a soft reception, and that’s a start. Perhaps some are waking up to the realization that Sam Hunt was never that committed to country music in the first place. Filling the mainstream ranks with performers who are passionate about the music is a good way to keep that passion reciprocated by the fans, and right now Sam Hunt is showing no passion in either talk, or action. The Sam Hunt country music empire was built on shift sand and shell games to being with. He never belonged in country. Now perhaps Sam Hunt has realized that himself.