Online venture yields big fan base for country star Sam Hunt

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NEW YORK >> Sam Hunt may be celebrating the one-year anniversary of his debut album, but most of the songs from "Montevallo" have been living online since 2013.

Hunt, who released "Montevallo" last year, first released a free mixtape in 2013. Seven of the 10 songs from "Montevallo" were originally on his 15-track free album.

"I put it out on the Internet for free and the success we had after, that was because of the fans," Hunt said in a recent interview.

And more fans have continued to support the 30-year-old singer, who is one of the brightest voices in country music.

Hunt has three No. 1 country singles, and he is nominated for three Country Music Association awards, to be presented in Nashville tonight. To repay fans, he digitally released an acoustic version of his free mixtape last week. "Between the Pines (Acoustic Mixtape)" is available on iTunes.

"Unfortunately we had to take the (free) mixtape down (but) this is just sort of a special occasion that we thought would be suited for reissuing that original mixtape," he said.

In a recent interview, Hunt talked with The Associated Press about releasing free music, his CMA nominations and his sophomore album.

School of hip-hop

Before he earned a recording contract, Hunt decided to release a mixtape of free songs to help push his style and sound — a page taken from rappers and hip-hop artists, and a rarity in the country music world.

Hunt said he was familiar with rappers dropping mixtapes and got an extra push to release free music from his producer Zach Crowell, who has worked with underground hip-hop artists in Nashville.

"(Crowell) was very familiar with that concept and I was familiar with it, I just never associated it with country music," he said.

Hunt put seven songs from the mixtape onto his major label debut, including two songs that eventually topped Billboard's Hot Country songs chart ("Leave the Night On," ''House Party").

He also created three new songs — including another No. 1 hit "Take Your Time" — and released the 10-track "Montevallo" last year. The album has sold more than 810,826 units and still sits in the Top 25 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

"One of the biggest artists right now in pop music is The Weeknd and I remember being around when his mixtapes came out and it was the same sort of concept," Hunt said of the breakthrough singer, who had massive hits this year with "Can't Feel My Face," "The Hills" and "Earned It."

"I've sort been watching his career since then, I'm a fan of his music and it's interesting to see now how that has grown into what it's become now," he said. "This is the same concept."

Newbie of the year

Hunt is nominated for three CMA Awards, including new artist of the year. He's the only breakthrough act to be up for song and single of the year for "Take Your Time," which he co-wrote. His competition includes hits like Little Big Town's "Girl Crush" and Kenny Chesney's "American Kids."

Hunt, who has co-written songs for Chesney, Keith Urban and Reba McEntire, says writing "Take Your Time" helped him find his own voice as a singer.

"I felt like I finally found a direction as an artist and I started writing with a purpose or writing as myself," he said. "I held that song and never pitched it."

Sophomore superstar

Hunt has started work on his follow-up to "Montevallo," and he says there's some pressure to match the success of his debut album.

He also said there's less pressure because he has been able to succeed in country music with a sound that blends country with elements of R&B, hip-hop and electronica.

"Everybody had a different opinion as to where the boundaries actually were as far as what we could do musically and sonically and lyrically, and that can kind of mess with your head," he said.

"Now that we've put out a record and we're a little more established and we have some eyes and ears (on us), I feel like a little bit of that pressure is off," he continued, "and we have a little more freedom to go wherever the creative process takes us."


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