Sam Hunt brings emotional mix of new songs, old hits to acoustic mixtape

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With music and style cues that emulate Atlanta hip-hop groups as much as the residents of Sam Hunt’s Georgia home, Hunt is a strange candidate for one of country’s fastest rising stars. Hunt has written hits for superstars such as Kenny Chesney, and a year after releasing his gold certified debut album, Montevallo, he is taking a victory lap, rereleasing his 2013 acoustic mixtape, Between the Pines, on Oct. 27.

The mixtape features 15 songs Hunt originally cowrote and recorded for his SoundCloud profile over a year ago. The tape was removed from SoundCloud prior to Montevallo’s release because some songs were bought by other artists and others were to be featured on Hunt’s then-forthcoming album. 

With the official release of Between the Pines, Hunt shows a more traditional country side of his music, abandoning the hip-hop-influenced production of the songs took on when recorded for Montevallo. Listeners may recognize several of Hunt’s recent singles, as well as Hunt’s top hits recorded by other artists. Although these original acoustic versions of now well-known songs will appeal to some, Hunt’s original unreleased songs benefit the record most.

Without the gloss of Nashville pop production, Hunt’s voice sometimes falters, especially when performing songs such as Billy Currington’s “We Are Tonight.” Hunt strips the songs down with a personal inflection to remind listeners that although they may know these songs from more famous artists, they still belong to their writer.

One song in particular — Keith Urban’s “Cop Car” — exemplifies Hunt’s desire to transition to recording all the music he writes. The song was sold to Urban without Hunt’s full approval as he had hoped to include it on his debut record.  Hunt’s performance feels heartfelt whereas Urban’s overdone recording sounded contrived.

Four of the songs featured on the album have previously reached No. 1 on the Billboard country charts, certifying Hunt’s penchant for catchy lyrics. Hunt’s writing has a universal quality that pairs with an emotional performance on “Bottle it Up” to remind listeners he’s as good with a microphone as a pen.

Regardless of his chart success, the mixtape demonstrates Hunt’s raw vocal talent, flexing his vocal range fearlessly over a sparse guitar on the penultimate track, “Goodbye.”   

An R&B stylized cadence and delivery accompany Hunt’s country grit, which he described in the New York Times as being “influenced by Usher and Nelly as much as it has been by George Strait and Alan Jackson.” Hunt’s music isn’t 100 percent country, but this gives him broad appeal, as shown by a crowd of rap fans applauding Hunt’s performance at this year’s SXSW during the hip-hop centric FADER FORT.

Hunt incorporates these non-country influences unapologetically and, in doing so, shows an authenticity many of his Nashville peers lack. With this record, he is able to embrace a more traditional songwriter aesthetic and show that while he may be influenced by R&B and have wide crossover appeal, he sticks to his roots as a country artist.

By stripping Hunt’s work of it’s pop veneer, the record develops an honesty that is often lost in pursuit of radio airplay. Although Hunt veers toward cliché on occasion, he finds a firm footing in sharing genuine stories with his audience.