Kansas City-based singer-songwriter Kelly Hunt hasn’t had what most would consider a normal path to music. All the early indicators were there; she was raised in a household filled with music in Memphis, sang in choirs and began writing songs on piano when she was in her teens. She absorbed influences from a range of different artists including Norah Jones, Rachmaninoff, and John Denver. But when she got out of school, her interests took her to some very different places, few of them music-related. She studied visual art and design at Notre Dame, the intricacies of agriculture, traditional French breadmaking (under the guidance of renowned chef Dan Barber, who is featured on Netflix's “Chef’s Table,” and which landed her in France on a Fulbright scholarship) and the pursuit of an interest in medicine.
It was during those years working through the visual arts that she was first introduced to the banjo and taught herself how to play, adopting an improvised style of playing, blending old-timey picking styles with an investigation of the more percussive origins of the instrument. And while her education did lead her away from that focus for a time, she eventually rekindled her deep connections to music and the act of songwriting while living in East Tennessee.
But her musical rediscovery really begins in a used music shop in Kansas City where she found the calfskin tenor banjo which has become such a large part of her rhythmic explorations. According to the case in which it was found, the instrument belonged to Ira Tamm, a man who ran a dog and pony show from 1920 to 1935, and in which he played the banjo. “I strummed it and said ‘This is unlike anything I’ve ever heard,’” Hunt says. “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.”
Shortly thereafter, she started to record what would eventually become “Even the Sparrow,” her forthcoming debut album, due out May 17 on Rare Bird Records. Filled with beautifully constructed narratives and possessing an aching emotional resonance, the record is a amalgam of experience and inspiration, both drawn from her travels abroad and the years creating roots in towns across the American Midwest and the South. Every pluck, strum and vocal wonder is used to fashion stories which dig into the caverns of your heart and flood your system with honest and earnest affection and ache.
On recent single, “Men of Blue & Grey,” Hunt builds a gorgeous and plaintive narrative inspired by the life of acclaimed Civil War photo-documentarian Mathew Brady and uses his works as a way to envision life and renewal through death and destruction. Her banjo lightly steps among these men and their memories as pain gives way to restoration. Her voice is a crystalline thing, beautiful and persuasive as it constructs a story anchored in shared histories. Strings eventually join in, providing another layer of personality and tone – it’s a song that burrows quickly and purposefully into the lower depths of your heart and bones.
“This song is based on the life of Mathew Brady, the chief photo-documentarian of the Civil War,“ she explains. “After the war, Brady went bankrupt and was forced to sell off his photo negatives (then made on glass plates), many of which ended up being re-purposed as panes in greenhouse ceilings around the country. Having specialized in 19th c. photographic processes in my undergraduate art studies, and being an enthusiast of Civil War history, I was captivated by this story and moved by the beautiful irony of these photographs—depicting death, destruction, and divisiveness—being used to cultivate new life.“