Photos by Katrina Lat
Most of today’s country is hiding its R&B backdrop behind banjos and lyrical Southern stereotypes. Taking Budweiser Stage by storm on Thursday night, Sam Hunt and his 15 in a 30 Tour chose a different route: they laid everything on the table.
The prelude to Hunt was Maren Morris, a Nashville powerhouse with a voice bigger than she is – way bigger. With her short hair tucked under a ball cap and tattoos sprinkled across her arms, Morris appeared to challenge the tired traditions of women in country. When she started to sing, her deep, soulful voice broke those traditions wide open. Morris’ set featured songs from her debut album Hero, a collection of sassy but honest numbers like “Rich” and “Once,” both littered with profanities not common in the country genre. Her music is influenced by blues and R&B, shown clearly through her perfectly placed cover of “Halo” by Beyoncé. For a tour that challenges the already blurred lines of country music, Morris was the ideal special guest to stand next to Hunt.
In all black – tee, jeans, and a fitted – an outsider might not expect the feel-good coming their way. But for those already acquainted with Hunt, the party had just started. His voice, smooth and styled with a touch of twang, were as swoon-worthy as his rugged good looks. Naturally, the place was packed with bright eyed girls-next-door. But by the show’s end, it was clear that Sam Hunt had more than a pretty face.
Since bursting onto the scene in 2014, Hunt has been labeled as the “bro” – the football playing party boy. Truthfully, his music doesn’t contradict that. But as explained to his Toronto fans, Hunt didn’t sidestep the struggles of the infamous five-year town. After months of writing and “eating gas station pizza” with his bandmates, his songs finally landed in the hands of stars like Billy Currington and Reba McEntire, and after the release of his debut album Montevallo, Hunt skyrocketed. Even without a follow-up, his success hasn’t slowed since.
That was the reason behind his tour’s name, Hunt admitted in an intimate 20 minute chat with the crowd halfway through the show. After flying so fast for so long, he was ready to take a second and really talk to his fans. Sitting solo centre stage with an acoustic in hand, Hunt told his story – from the peach tea of his Georgian childhood to the magic of meeting his longtime love turned wife.
He shared his varied musical influences, playing acoustic samples of Alan Jackson and Usher side by side. That alone was a unique concert experience. He explained the origins of his songs, like “Cop Car,” a sing-along tale of youth and mischief backed by a hip-hop beat. The song was inspired by the times him and his wife would sneak into the airport and watch the planes take off as teenagers. After getting picked up by Keith Urban, the single became a massive hit that shot Hunt into the country scene. The crowd of 20-something denim-clad boozers were surprisingly attentive the whole time, showing their gratitude for the laid back one-on-one (or one-on-16,000).
Beyond his sugar-coated lyrics and formulaic melodies, the reality is this: Sam Hunt can write one hell of a song. I’m sure the sold out Budweiser Stage would concur. What’s better? He’s realistic. Hunt knows he’s not Merle Haggard. He also knows he’s not R. Kelly. He’s Sam Hunt. And despite flack from the all too traditionalized former genre, this tour proved he is more than comfortable pioneering the space in between.