Pop country dynamo Sam Hunt wows a State Fair crowd

Affable hunk Sam Hunt may not be “real country” (as I’m sure we’ll learn in the comments), but he’s the first indication that Nashville might advance past the pickups ‘n’ cutoffs, beer ‘n’ bonfire jams of the perpetually dreaded bro-country cohort. Unlike Florida Georgia line, Hunt can form a complete sentence without using the verb “to party.” Unlike Luke Bryan, you don’t get the sense that if the country music thing hadn’t worked out, he’d be showing up at your bachelorette party dressed as a cop.

In fact, Hunt fell back on country after his career as a UAB quarterback didn’t lead to the NFL, and you can see traces of his athleticism and maybe even his on-field footwork in the way the singer bounded across the State Fair Grandstand stage last night like he was looking for an open man. On his 2014 debut, Montevallo, Hunt integrated the seductive vocal grain of contemporary R&B into a rhythmically spruced up radio-friendly country that adapted the beatwise lessons mainstream pop had learned from hip-hop and electronic dance music without being too pushy about it.

At Monday’s show, Hunt revealed himself unashamedly pop before he even stepped onstage. The pre-show soundtrack jumbled “Bad Liar” in with “Daddy Lessons,” sampled Chesney along with Bieber. The introductory track blaring when he came onstage ranged even wider culturally: music from Ray Charles to the Backstreet Boys, spoken word snippets integrating “I Have a Dream” with “You Might Be a Redneck.” (Hmm.) Calling this dude out as “not really country” is as point-missingly dim as complaining about that Game of Thrones sucks because it doesn’t use real dragons.

For much of his set, though, Hunt was less a daring genre-bender than a skilled arena country dynamo, a real jump-on-the-riser, light-up-those-cell-phones go-getter, though with too much chill to come off as a cornball. With their big guitars, bigger drums, and biggest choruses, songs like “Leave the Night On” and “Saturday Night” look to the weekend as an escape from drudgery but as a youthful triumph over boredom, targeting an audience young enough to not yet equate romance with heartbreak and partying with hangovers – an audience that sold out the Grandstand on the last night of the fair, along with some other fans infatuated enough with Hunt to forget that they were old enough to know better.

Hunt was a genial onstage presence introducing “Cop Car” (a Hunt co-write that Keith Urban originally recorded) as a true story about the time he and the woman he married this April crept through a gap in a fence to watch planes take off on an Alabama runway and wound up in police custody. (“I’ve always had a knack for getting myself in troublesome situations.”) And there were little surprises: During “House Party,” which has that bom-bom-BOM, BOM-bom-bom rhythm beloved of “rocking” boy bands like Hot Chelle Rae, one of Hunt’s guitarists slid the chorus melody from “One Nation Under a Groove” into his solo.

Midway through his set, Hunt hunkered down with an acoustic guitar to explain the evolution of his sound, maybe justifying himself at greater length than necessary for a guy with the biggest country song of 2017. (We’ll get to that.) He sang bits of old Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt songs as he talked about listening exclusively to country radio as a kid (“I couldn’t tell you the difference between Nirvana and Madonna”), then he gave us his take on Usher and R Kelly, the music he encountered in his teens.

There was a moral in there, Hunt insisted. “My generation is the first to grow up with the internet,” he said, explaining that the ready availability of different styles of music has destroyed genre as we know it. “No generation has been as culturally integrated as this one,” he told an audience that you wouldn’t exactly call racially integrated. Yet on a weekend that we learned DACA was likely to be ended in a particularly cruel way, Hunt telling his audiences “You’re gonna tear down the walls that divide us” was about as pointedly political as a mainstream country star might get. A whole lot of U.S. history suggests music can only erode so much bigotry, but there was maybe nothing so genuinely country about Hunt as his flattering an audience by appealing to its better angels.

Finally, we got the big hits. The “singalongable” (Hunt’s word) “Body Like a Back Road” (“I know every curve like the back of my hand”), has dominated country radio this year, setting a new record for most weeks topping the charts. As vehicular sex metaphors go, it’s sly and playful, and his cool delivery keeps it from getting icky. “Take Your Time,” Hunt’s breakthrough hit, got him pegged as “Nashville’s Drake” because he slides between a conversational patter and moments of smooth R&B phrasing. Hunt entered the audience during this one, and encountered a ferocious wave of technologically mediated lust as throngs of cellphones shot toward him, dragging their young female owners behind them. They don’t want to tear his clothes off, they just want to take his picture.

The crowd: Whenever I’m back visiting family in New Jersey and I tell people I live in Minnesota, this is what they imagine my neighbors look like. Or my neighbors’ kids, more like it. The youngest I saw was a seven- or eight-year-old in an oversized Hunt jersey and cowboy hat who, like everyone else around him, knew all the words.

Overheard in the crowd: “No, no, no, don’t listen to them,” a very animated fan behind me, when Hunt was telling us how Nashville executives wanted him to change his sound.

Critic’s bias: “Take Your Time” is a ground-shifting pop country smash that I’ve never been able to warm up to. The offhanded spoken bits ramble too pointlessly, the switch between the spoken and sung bits is jarring, and if Hunt was a fraction less handsome, the woman he’s approaching wouldn’t even look up her phone while telling him to scram.

Random notebook dump: Every other State Fair concert review has mentioned it, so I guess I should make it unanimous and say, yes, the new Ferris wheel is a gorgeous sight, tucked scenically just behind the Grandstand stage right. As a ride, though, it’s less impressive – decent view, but you don’t even get a full rotation without stopping.

Setlist
Leave the Night On
House Party
Raised on It
Saturday Night
Cop Car
I Met a Girl
We Are Tonight
It’s a Great Day to Be Alive (Travis Tritt cover)
Medley: Don’t Rock the Jukebox (Alan Jackson cover) /Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares) (Travis Tritt cover)/Nice and Slow (Usher cover)/Ignition(Remix) (R Kelly cover)/Come Over (Kenny Chesney cover)
Speakers
Body Like a Back Road
Take Your Time
Ex to See

Encore
Make You Miss Me
Break Up in a Small Town