The country firebrand, 30, looks back on his insane debut year.
Credit: C Flanigan/FilmMagic

Exactly one year ago, then buzzy singer-songwriter Sam Hunt — who got his start penning hits for Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney — dropped his debut collection, Montevallo, and scored his first country radio No.1 with “Leave The Night On.” Since then, he’s had three singles go platinum and top the Billboard Country charts — his most recent, “Break Up In A Small Town,” currently No. 22 and climbing, was gold before even hitting radio. Hunt went out on a largely sold-out winter headlining tour before opening for Lady Antebellum on the band’s massive summer run and linking up with Luke Bryan for his fall Farm Tour. Recently, he nabbed nominations for three CMA awards, including Best New Artist, and was a guest on Taylor Swift’s 1989 stop in Chicago. Somewhere in there, he became a star.

Montevallo, for it’s part, is excellent — confident, adventurous, genre-bending tales of small-town country life by a guy from a small country town. As Hunt heads off the road and back into the studio, EW caught up with the singer to discuss his rowdy first year of stardom and what fans can expect next.

Looking at your last year, the way everything just absolutely took off — No. 1 songs, big album sales, award nominations, and more — has any of it sunk in?

It’s been a real day-by-day year [laughs]. All the cool things that might happen on a particular day, I would enjoy them, but then we’re on to something else. And those days turned into weeks over the past year….[But] when everything’s quiet and everything slows down, those are the times when I feel it. Like sitting on the bus, randomly. I would just look out at the window and I’d have a moment. I have sort of a mental scrapbook of the bus in general — going from a van to a bus, then adding another bus, adding more people to the crew. Thinking about that, those are the moments that blow me away.

Have there been any downsides to success so far?

Just the attention that it requires. Even though it’s my top priority and passion, it’s made me put some other things that matter to me on the back burner — relationships with people that I’m not able to see or talk to as much, my family back home, trips to Georgia that I would have been able to make a lot more often. I was in a pretty comfortable routine before, getting into the new lifestyle I had a little whiplash at first. I’m starting to find some balance now.

“House Party” is one of the biggest singles of the year. Do you always hear it when you go to an actual house party?

[Laughs] Well truthfully, I haven’t really been able to go to many house parties since I put out a record. But I hate listening to myself in general, especially with a bunch of people around so I would have to sabotage that if it happened.

You just got back in the studio for your next LP. Have you found the last year of touring to have any effect on your writing?

I’ve really been able to appreciate the value of certain types of songs [for] a live audience. Our show has a little bit more energy and the tempo is a little bit more upbeat than the way I usually approach songwriting — I tend to lean towards ballads and slower songs. So I’m more aware of needing that balance. There will be songs that will be great to listen to in the car by yourself, songs that will be perfect for a party with your friends, or a live show.

Where does a song start for you?

I get the best inspiration or the most creativity from real emotions. Most of my [songs] are a product of my life and the experiences that I’m having or emotions that I’m going through. Sometimes I’m not even aware of some of the issues going on with me in my life until I sit down and start kind of looking for inspiration, trying to find something that inspires that creativity. Whatever’s going on in my life shows up in the writing room.

Are you working with the same team?

Yeah, [producer] Zach Crowell and I just got back in the studio. He’s my right-hand man in terms of the workload. And, of course, [writers] Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. Everybody in the little group musically has been there from the start. We’ve got such a relationship now, the personal side of it is really important to the productivity of the creative side. It took a few years to develop that, so I want to stick with it.

Your music is often brought up in the conversation about the dividing line between country and pop music, but you’ve been adamant that you make country music and will continue to do so.

I don’t have any intention of leaving country music. I really don’t even know how to go about doing that. The things that are going to be in all my records, for as long as I’m making them, are going to go back to who I am and where I’m from and the lifestyle that I live and come from — and I don’t know how I could ever get any of that close enough to pop to be considered a pop act.

You’re up for three CMAs on November 4: Song and Single of the Year for “Take Your Time” as well as Best New Artist. Congrats! How does it feel?

I’m flattered! Awards have never been something I strive for, but they are a reflection of all the people who put in the hard work. Especially now that we have more working parts in the operations, it’s more my priority to make sure those guys know they’re appreciated. I’m really able to understand that I’m a working part of the machine — that it takes a lot more than me.

You’ve said you got into music because it was an escape from some life stressors, like college football. Now that music is your job, how has your passion for it changed?

It has made it harder to appreciate. As much fun as I had the last year, I felt my sensitivities to music sort of dull, [but] I can already feel them being refreshed after being back home. And when I was in my late teens and early 20s, there were a lot more emotional ups and downs compared to now. I think maybe those are the times in your life where you really appreciate music.

In celebration of Montevallo‘s first birthday, the singer dropped Between The Pines, an acoustic mixtape of all his songs. It’s available for purchase on iTunes as well as streaming below.