Sunny country music singer Sam Hunt added to the loud buzz of the opening weekend of two new casinos, the Hard Rock and Ocean Resorts; sweltering heat and Fourth of July's pre-holiday revelers were present for the first Atlantic City beach concert of the season (the Chainsmokers and Demi Lovato will follow later in the summer).
Hunt is a former college football quarterback, and his athletic background gives him his all-American éclat. The rural Georgian's career began behind the scenes when he penned songs for, and with, Kenny Chesney and Reba McEntire for genuine country cred. These elements give the cleverly lyrical, baritone-voiced Hunt an aw shucks humility, as he and his band — on barstools, as if hanging at their neighborhood honky-tonk — tackled a medley of '90s country greats such as Brooks & Dunn's "Brand New Man," Jo Dee Messina's "Heads Carolina, Tails California," the Dixie Chicks' quirkily funny "Goodbye Earl," Tim McGraw's "Green Grass Grows," and Garth Brooks' rugged "Ain't Going Down."
This fluid, nuanced setlist showed his connection to contemporary country's recent past, as well as a desire to do each cut justice. Face it: Medleys stink. They abbreviate and rush. Hunt, instead, was respectful of the inspirational melodies and homey lyrics that helped build his aesthetic, and the results were emotionally rich. Additional covers of Billy Currington's "We Are Tonight," Keith Urban's "Cop Car," and William Michael Morgan's "I Met a Girl" — all co-written by Hunt — allowed the singer to interpret the semantics of quiet sundowns and small town romance with reserved modesty.
This was not your usual broad strokes beach show.
Hunt eventually shut off the innocent, good-guy stuff, and moved from country's tropes into other musical atmospheres with confident, slow soul swagger. "House Party" had a slick, disco-country groove. Without copy-catting, there was a dash of Keith Urban's bluesy guitar scrawl in Hunt's arrangements, and Usher's rap-warble in the vocal department — influences that came together handsomely in "Make You Miss Me." Rather than boldly play up the song's lasciviousness when he hit the phrase, "I'm gonna make you wish that you were sleeping in my shirt/Lie about my jacket, and tell everyone it's yours," Hunt made that line reading intimate, relaxed, and casually sensual. "Ex to See" and "Body Like a Back Road" were shrewd and soulful.
It was the sing-speak storytelling of "Break Up in a Small Town" and "Take Your Time" that was most impressive when it came to Hunt's bag of verbal tics, a fireside's chattiness that linked him to country masters Conway Twitty and Porter Wagoner. Like those legends, Hunt found a talky, hard scramble tale to tell (the bad men in one woman's life in "Take Your Time") and offered himself as a viable — yet not pushy — solution. Through the swinging "We Can Leave the Light On," Hunt put himself forward as a relaxed-fit lothario, and offered to give his lady ample space. In "Take Your Time," he promised not to push to meet your mom or smother you with too much kindness too quickly.
Hunt's smooth, romantic mood even encouraged one marriage proposal: Ocean City's Ronnie Defelice of Ocean City proposed to his girlfriend, Taylor Reeves, by flying his message of love over the beach with a banner plane. She accepted. The couple was upgraded to the VIP section to celebrate the good news