Sam Hunt + Ashley McBryde: Two of Country’s Dark Horses Drop Career-Defining Sophomore Albums

Sam Hunt; Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images, Ashley McBryde; Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images
Sam Hunt; Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images, Ashley McBryde; Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images
Sam Hunt; Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images, Ashley McBryde; Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images

On Friday (April 3), two artists from opposite sides of the country music spectrum shared stellar sophomore albums: Ashley McBryde released Never Will, and Sam Hunt dropped Southside.

The two projects — and the artists who made them — couldn’t be more different, and at first glance, it may seem like the only thing Hunt and McBryde have in common is that they’re both longshots.

Fans first fell in love with McBryde as a scrappy, traditionalist songwriter with a chip on her shoulder, a road dog who proved her hometown naysayers wrong in her breakout song, “Girl Going Nowhere.” She won a ferociously dedicated fanbase and widespread critical acclaim with her debut album, but struggled at country radio, and her curly hair and extensive tattoos didn’t gel with the prototype of what a female country star was expected to look like.

Hunt had the opposite problem. He hit No. 1 with his debut single, “Leave the Night On,” in late 2014, then notched three more chart-topping hits from his 2015 debut album, Montevallo, alone. But the singer drew criticism for being “not country enough,” with many listeners disparaging his use of snap tracks and obvious R&B and hip-hop influences.

Furthermore, he had continuity issues: Hunt would disappear from the country scene for months at a time, come back to drop a song or hint at a new album and then go dark again. He seemed to struggle with fame, and after he married Hannah Lee Fowler in 2017 — who he had a tumultuous relationship with in the years prior, lending ample inspiration to his songs — he seemed to be less interested in being in the public eye.

However, Hunt’s new musical chapter began to pick up steam in 2019 when he dropped “Kinfolks,” marking his first No. 1 hit since “Body Like a Back Road” in 2017.

In 2020, he followed that with “Hard to Forget,” a bouncy heartbreak anthem that tipped its hat to those who would argue he doesn’t know his classic country music by sampling Webb Pierce’s 1953 hit, “There Stands the Glass.”

Taken as a whole, Southside blends Hunt’s trademark genre-bending style with a real appreciation for traditionalism, not just in “Hard to Forget” but also in the guitar-driven ballad that opens the project, “2016.”

I’d put the whiskey back in the bottle / Put the smoke back in the joint / I’d look up at the sky and say / ‘Okay, okay, okay, I think you’ve made your point,” he sings in the confessional opening lines of the song.

Hunt has always been a sharp lyricist, and though Southside is far from a straight-ahead country album, the project sees him relaxing into what he does naturally: Singing songs about his life in exacting detail, especially about the ill-advised, over-served, painful nights that follow a breakup. In taking space away from the spotlight, Hunt created his own, authentic take on well-loved country tropes.

For her part, McBryde embraced a little bit more of her rocker side on Never Will, a step that she admits made her nervous at first.

“At first, I thought, ‘I don’t know if all these songs go together,’” she confesses in a press release. “Then, when we laid them all down, I saw, ‘Oh yeah. They do.’ It’s called range. You’re a complete person. You don’t just make a rock record. You don’t just make a country record. You make your record.”

Of course, there’s plenty of country to be heard on Never Will, such as the gospel-inflected “Velvet Red” and the goofily ‘90s country-inspired “Styrofoam.” But many of the album’s more vulnerable, searing moments, like “Voodoo Doll” and “Shut Up Sheila,” welcome a little bit of stylistic complexity.

McBryde grapples with grief, anger and pain throughout her new album. One standout track, “Stone,” is a raw meditation on her complicated relationship with her older brother, Clay, who died in 2018. The singer hasn’t talked much publicly about Clay’s death, but she worked hard to be vulnerable about her loss in her songwriting.

“If I’m going to get to do music on this level and get to reach the ears we’re getting to reach, then you have to reach deeper,” she explained in an interview with Music Week. “And you have to be more naked in front of the audience.”

Second albums are famously nerve-wracking — they don’t call it the “sophomore slump” for no reason — but both Hunt and McBryde overcame that hurdle by not paying too much attention to the expectations facing them.

Even more importantly, the two artists came from entirely different backgrounds and styles of country music, and each created a seminal album not only for their own catalogues, but to the genre as a whole. Their releases are proof that in today’s musical landscape, there’s a million right ways to make a great country record.

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