For the last few decades, country music's hitmakers have been incorporating elements from successes on the pop charts. There was the big, booming drum sound of Def Leppard, then the peaceful, easy harmonies of the Eagles and more recently the singsong hip-hop of Nelly.
Sam Hunt, country's newest sensation who played at the sold-out State Fair grandstand Monday, cites Usher, a grandstand headliner just four days earlier, as a big influence. Indeed, Hunt's phrasing was decidedly like Usher's at times, especially on "Speakers" and "Take Your Time," the country star's second of his six No. 1 songs and a pretty blatant R&B song.
In fact, Hunt offered a taste of Usher's "Nice and Slow" Monday during a solo acoustic segment in which he spotlighted songs by his influences — country traditionalists Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt, plus R&B stars R. Kelly and Usher.
That's not to say that Hunt, 32, doesn't have much in common with today's country stars. He had Luke Bryan's manic energy, Kenny Chesney's small-town sensibilities, Florida Georgia Line's party attitude, Zac Brown's dark beard and Keith Urban's electrifying smile.
On a cool and damp, hoodie-and-poncho kind of night, Hunt raised the temperature and spirits of the 13,140 fans as soon as he hit the stage with "Leave the Night On," featuring its country choruses and hip-hop verses. He was all bouncy energy, moving to the hip-hop cadence, maneuvering his microphone-free hand like he was scratching on turntables.
Dressed in hunting boots, cargo pants, ball cap and a long black T-shirt, Hunt came on like a contagious force. A former college quarterback (he reportedly tried out with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs), he must have covered 100 yards per song on Monday romping around the stage.
Even during ballads like "Cop Car," he stalked the stage. And when he jumped into the audience without security guards, boy-band-like joy and chaos ensued. Fortunately, the ex-QB was able to make it back to the stage without any blockers leading the way.
With only one proper album to his name, Hunt had to find material to fill out his 80-minute set on his first-ever headline tour. So he offered his readings of hits he wrote for others, including Billy Currington's "We Are Tonight," Urban's "Cop Car" and Chesney's "Come Over," which has an R&B-styled chorus. Hunt also did a full version of Tritt's "It's a Great Day To Be Alive."
At this point in his young career, Hunt has yet to come up with a country classic. However, as a songwriter, he exhibits a way with words. On "Ex To See," he sang about showing off to his lady's ex, set to hard hip-hop beats.
Talking about getting to know a new crush, he fired off one of his best lines — "I'ma take it slow just as fast as I can" — in his biggest song, "Body Like a Back Road," one of summer's most popular tunes that also became a pop hit.
Hunt gave a non-preachy speech about being part of a generation that knows no musical limitations by genre and "hangs out with people you like, not just people that look like you." He encouraged his generation to tear down the walls that divides this country and "allow us to be making the music we're supposed to be making in 2017."
He's practicing what he preaches.