On the surface, Sam Hunt and Sturgill Simpson have only two things in common: They’re both musically inclined dudes who hail from the South, and they’ve both sold out rooms in the city tonight (Irving Plaza and the Bowery Ballroom, respectively). One traded in his college football quarterback career for a guitar, popular country, and all the major-chord sing-alongs and truck talk that implies; one explores the steely fringe of the genre, doing right by the bluegrass, Americana, and folk that the coalminers in his family were listening to long before he was born.
As country continues to proliferate within both the mainstream (Miranda Lambert’s killer Grammy performance, anyone?) and rock ‘n’ roll of an indier ilk, Hunt and Simpson are set to capitalize on the momentum built by the critically acclaimed albums they made in 2014. Here’s a brief primer on two of country’s most talked-about talents — by the end of it, you’ll realize there’s another thing that trumps any comparison between them: They’re both going to be playing much, much bigger rooms the next time they head up north to play New York.
The strength of their music doesn’t rely on boot-stompin’ twang and a ton of country clichés. Yeah, they couldn’t shake their accents if they tried, and denying the world a handful of tunes that bank on regional charm and a “y’all” or two would do us all a disservice. But both Hunt and Simpson are fantastic lyricists who break out of the tired “trucks and whiskey and girls and trucks and guns and trucks” country tropes. (OK, so Hunt has a song that involves falling in love in the back of a truck, but we’ll forgive it.) The only thing that keeps Hunt’s “Single for the Summer” on country radio rotation is a faint pedal steel lick that’s all but forgotten underneath the synthetic beat of an electronic drum kit and a whisper of Auto-Tune (for effect, of course). Simpson, meanwhile, brings Jesus into the fray right from the jump of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music with “Turtles All the Way Down,” and the gospel-tinged lines of “A Little Light” could’ve been sung just as easily in 1914, but for every God-fearin’ line, he’s got another in his arsenal that alludes to pot, vices, and struggles with alcoholism (namely “Living the Dream”). The delivery may be country as hell, right down to that last soaring high note, but listen closely and you’ll find both Hunt and Simpson speak universal truths that don’t require Nashville’s approval.
They’re no rookies. Hunt was writing singles for country’s biggest names before he broke out on his own as a solo artist, and Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney count him as a scribe on some of their records. Urban performed the Hunt-penned “Cop Car” alongside Gary Clark Jr. at the 2014 Grammys, and Hunt would go on to include his (arguably better) version of the track on his debut, Montevallo, upon its release nine months later. As for Sturgill, Metamodern isn’t his first full-length, but a sophomore effort: The album is his most commercially successful to date (it cracked the top ten on both Billboard‘s Indie and Country charts) and follows hot on the heels of 2013’s High Top Mountain.
They take matters into their own hands. Before the labels and acclaim came a-knockin’, Hunt and Sturgill were releasing their own stuff. Sturgill put up the cash for High Top Mountain himself and released it of his own accord — and did so again with Metamodern a year later — while Hunt put a fifteen-track mixtape called Beneath the Pines up on his website to give listeners a taste of what he was working on nearly a year before Montevallo was put out by a major label.
Their efforts were two of last year’s most-talked-about records, and they didn’t just resonate with country fans. Both Hunt and Simpson made waves beyond Music Row: Our own Pazz + Jop poll had Simpson’s Metamodern sitting pretty at No. 6 on the Best Albums of 2014 list, while a handful of critics gave precious ballot space to Hunt’s Montevallo and its leadoff single, “Leave the Night On.”
They’d both make for awesome cab drivers. Simpson spends half of Metamodern talking about epic journeys of both the literal and spiritual variety, so it’s safe to say he’d be an excellent captain on any given trek, even if you’re just heading from 14th to Houston. As for Hunt, he’s tried his hand at that gig already.
Sam Hunt headlines Irving Plaza on February 11. Sturgill Simpson plays the Bowery Ballroom February 11 and the Music Hall of Williamsburg February 12. All shows are sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.