Kelly Hunt’s songs arrive on the bounce of a banjo string
lifted by the warmth of a fiddle, and brought to life by vocals that softly soar across America’s great divides of geography and time.
Her debut album “Even the Sparrow” is Americana at its finest, filled with stories that sound familiar and melodies that tug at the ear like a distant memory. Whether it’s a ballad set in Civil War times or a timeless ode to the moon, Hunt’s music is rooted in the past but delivered with a clarity and warmth that feels wholly contemporary.
Vocals soar softly across America’s great divide
The first step is always being captivated by the story
The album—co-produced by Kelly Hunt and Stas Heaney, with recording engineering done by Kelly Werts and released in 2019 by Rare Bird Records—primarily features Hunt on banjo and vocals with Heaney on fiddle. “Even The Sparrow” has earned praise from Rolling Stone, Popmatters, and No Depression, leading to appearances at folk festivals, art spaces, and community radio stations across the country. A brief European tour is planned for 2020, and a second album is in the works.
For Hunt, the songwriting process is one of immersion—in the lives of the characters she sings about, the books and documentaries that tell their stories, and even the historical textures of the instruments themselves.
“The first step is always being captivated by the story,” Hunt says. “I try to immerse myself in the story and imagine what it would have been like to be there, and then I just kind of paint from the picture in my mind.”
After being introduced to the banjo, Hunt began to develop her own improvised style of playing, combining old-time picking styles with the percussive origins of the instrument. “I’m self-taught, I just started letting the song dictate what needed to be there,” she says. After college, Hunt followed a rambling path that took her through careers in acting, graphic design, traditional French breadmaking, and medicine, all the while making music as a private endeavor. “I wanted to get serious about a responsible career choice, but music kept bubbling up. I was writing a lot and playing a lot and started to not be satisfied just playing to my walls of my room.”
Hunt wrote most of the songs on the album with the aid of a 100 year old tenor banjo.
The instrument, given to her by a friend who collects antiques, had belonged to a musician who played it in a dog-and-pony show in the 1920s. “It had this really mellow soft sound, a totally different voice than the banjo that I was accustomed to,” she says.
the aid of a 100 year old tenor banjo.
It’s very subtle, but you can feel your instrument vibrate at your body differently
In order to evoke the sound and feel of an earlier era, Hunt and Heaney elected to record the album at the traditional tuning frequency of 432hz rather than the modern standard of 440z. It’s a difference subtle enough to escape most ears, but one she swears she can feel in her gut.
“It’s very subtle, but you can feel your instrument vibrate at your body differently,” she says. “It’s one of those secret little inside pleasures of the album.”
The daughter of an opera singer and a saxophone player
Discovering Appalachian folk music
Hunt grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, the daughter of an opera singer and a saxophone player. She developed an early interest in country, classical, and choral music; grew to love ‘70s singer/songwriters, and indie and emo artists; and eventually discovered Appalachian folk music. She began writing songs on the piano before moving on to the banjo, inspired by older American musical traditions as well as the contemporary folk songs of Gillian Welch.
Participating in Artist INC
Hunt participated in the Artist INC program at a time when she had decided to take the leap to full-time songwriting but wasn’t sure how to make it work. She credits Artist INC with helping provide instruction ranging from tax planning to how to establish an LLC.
I felt like I was lost at sea
I came out feeling like I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I know what I need to do, and being rooted in that made it seem like it was graspable.
“Going into that program, I felt kind of lost at sea,” she says. “I came out feeling like I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I know what I need to do, and being rooted in that made it seem like it was graspable.”
Artist INC also placed Hunt in a community of artists and art professionals who provided each other with support, solidarity, and encouragement—a network she remains close with today. “Programs like Artist INC are a really good indicator of Kansas City’s strong artistic community,” she says. “This was just the right incubator to get my bearings, figure out my style, and take my time to create something I was proud of.”