Rare Bird Records
A peculiar set – I’m not saying this work is obscure or for special tastes. Rather, it’s something, unlike many other similar treks down paths of banjo music.
Kansas-based Kelly Hunt’s 12-track banjo-heavy Even the Sparrow (Release: May 17th on Rare Bird Records) may not be attractive at first listen to people who don’t savvy banjo music as a regular diet but there is something of value here. She has a deep-toned, warm banjo sound that eliminates all the hokum often attached to the instrument.
Another likable young lady on banjo is Mean Mary but she’s in a different realm as well. She may be Kelly’s only fresh and original competition.
While the first 2 tracks may not stimulate the unaccustomed ear track 3 “Back to Dixie,” does become apparent that this Kelly Hunt is infused with energy, picks with authority and her strings just may win new ears. Just listen.
Her partner – the Depression-era tenor banjo itself – was once played by someone named Ira Tamm (1920-1935). With its wood, steel, and calfskin – the musical mechanism has aged, ripened and possesses a sound that many modern banjos don’t. It’s a warm and mellow sound. This is what’s immediately noticeable along with Kelly’s strong, Memphis, TN diction. Her voice compliments the efforts of her tenor banjo. They were made for each other.
Track 1 features Tyler Giles’ acoustic guitar and Kelly’s deep vocal has challenging Scottish, Irish traditional overtones. It has peat, Irish Whiskey, 4-leaf clovers, mossy hills, old castles and a pinch of Kansas-American banjo to balance it. There’s a richness here not found in standard folk song Americana banjo, and she’s a wonderful storyteller. All poetic lines — not mere lyrics.
Kelly could easily impress a Celtic audience. The title song features a fiddle (Stas Heaney), and between Ms. Hunt’s banjo plucks, and Stas’ mournful fiddle, the tune lays down a style that infuses the songs in a respective traditional nature: despite being written by a young, talented woman who does not have gray hair.
Kelly’s secret may be that her veins come out of her wrist, run down the arm of the banjo, past the calfskin head and are wound tight at the base. Kelly’s self-taught, and doesn’t adhere to hard-fast banjo rules except for creativity & originality. Her soulful recipe is filled with ghosts of traditional banjo styles, Civil War melodies, riverboat music, and a feel often found in the hands of the late John Hartford.
Kelly’s voice isn’t as traditional and arresting as Iris Dement, Gillian Welch, Allison Krauss or the Cox Family. While her voice is somewhat closer to Norah Jones, there is a resonance of Christine Collister, Christine McVie with June Tabor phrasing.
“Sunshine Long Overdue,” has banjo moments plucked the way the late English folk singer Nick Drake would’ve picked his acoustic guitar. His kind of spirit. With “Fingernail Moon,” Kelly’s folk vocalese drifts into a thin misty melody. Heaney’s fiddle is fiery and Chris DeVictor’s upright bass wrestles admirably with Kelly’s authoritative vocal. These tunes possess tight, thoughtful arrangements though many are played with spare instrumentation.
More percussive is “Delta Blues.” Kelly’s deeper Southern folk-blues vocal register is appealing. More storytelling pleasure comes in “Bird Song,” as fiddle sawing, banjo picking, & acoustic guitar jell with Kelly’s higher voice. With “Nothin On My Mind,” Kelly offers a bluesier feel as she sings with a seductive warm Madeleine Peyroux jazz style. And it suits her. The more rousing “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” is a hat tip to the similarly titled film & soundtrack to the mountain lore Americana-roots music. Quite excellent.
“Gloryland,” closes, and it’s spiritually inflected. It features vintage style Gospel vocals (Havilah & Kris Bruders) with a sumptuous Kelly vocal surrounded by Tyler Giles’ fine acoustic & a church organ swipe by Stas Heaney. The LP — if nothing more — is generously consistent and satisfying.
Produced by Kelly Hunt & Stas Heaney. Purchase at her website, Discogs, & Amazon.