Hunt seems destined to add plenty of her own stories to the banjo’s largely unknown tale. The daughter of an opera singer and a saxophonist, Hunt grew up in Memphis, Tenn., taking piano lessons, singing in choirs, performing in theater, and writing her own songs beginning as a teenager. She studied French and visual arts in college, where she was also introduced to banjo and taught herself to play a combination of old-time picking styles and the instrument’s even older percussive roots. It wasn’t until she found this old calfskin-covered tenor banjo in a used instrument shop that she started working on what became this album.
“I really wasn’t looking for it,” she says, “but I opened up the case and it said ‘This banjo was played by a man named Ira Tamm in his dog and pony show from 1920 to 1935.’ I strummed it and said ‘This is unlike anything I’ve ever heard.’ People often think of the banjo as being rather brash and tinny – loud and kind of grating – but this was so warm and mellow, with an almost harp-like quality to it, very soulful.”
The soulfulness of that instrument and its compatibility with Hunt’s seductive alto are immediately apparent in the opening track “Across The Great Divide.” It’s a song that combines ancient cadences with very contemporary lyrics as she looks back on a relationship that could never bridge that divide, her vocals accompanied only by the hushed, warm plucking of that banjo.
It’s a delightful gem of a song, no? The whole collection of a dozen songs, all written by Hunt, continues in that vein. The songs are thoughtfully arranged with minimal accompaniment in addition to Hunt’s banjo: some occasional guitar and pedal steel, an upright bass, some backing vocals, and her main collaborator and co-producer Staś Heaney on fiddle, percussion, bass and organ.
That fiddle is a haunting presence on the next song “Even The Sparrow.” Again, it’s a modern take on an old-time theme, one common in Appalachian music and its antecedents in English and Celtic song, of a woman left at home while her man roams. Hunt’s banjo and its solid, never-wavering cadence to me represents the faithfulness of the homebound, the sinuous fiddle line is the wandering one, while Hunt’s vocal line reaches an emotional pitch that belies the plodding banjo. A deceptively simple song with more depth that is first apparent.
The natural world is a constant presence on this album, in the titles and throughout the earthy lyrics of Hunt’s perceptive folk songs. The raggedly loping “Sunshine Long Overdue” is a joyful ode to good times. On “Bird Song” the banjo and fiddle lines move from unison to counterpoint, twining around each other like competing but compatible bird songs. “Nothin’ On My Mind” is a hushed, intimate folk tune about enjoying her own company out in nature. “Fingernail Moon” finds Hunt strumming and tapping the banjo, the pensive verses and galloping chorus reflecting the paripatetic life of the traveling musician, all under the cold eye of the moon as she drives through the lonely nights.
These songs and the lives they illuminate feel lived-in, inhabited by real folks. Four in particular display her skill at weaving a powerful, metaphor-heavy ballad. “Men Of Blue & Grey” tells of a Civil War photographer who uses the glass plates to rebuild his greenhouse after it’s wrecked by a storm, the sunlight streaming through the images of dead soldiers giving life to young plant starts. “Delta Blues” finds Hunt singing unaccompanied but for her the banjo head which she uses as a frame drum, framing the gospel-tinged tale of a poor Delta farmer. The final two employ the two ends of the spectrum of Southern gospel themes, judgment and redemption. “Oh Brother” is a harrowing retelling of the Bible’s tale of the first murder, from the point of view of Abel’s brother Cain; and “Gloryland” is a joyful, full-band gospel sing-along to wrap up the final track.
The songs on Even the Sparrow are remarkably well-honed for a debut release, as are Kelly Hunt’s playing and singing. Something tells me we’ll be hearing from her for a long time to come.
(Rare Bird Records, 2019)