When singer/songwriter Kelly Hunt arrived in Kansas City from Memphis three years ago, the relocation came with a surprise: There was already a well-known musician in town who had the same name — or practically the same. Kelley Hunt (who spells her name with just one more e than Kelly Hunt) is the R & B pianist who’s been rocking this region for a few decades.
Now, the newcomer says with a laugh, “I’m ‘Banjo Kelly Hunt’ in these parts.”
“Banjo” Kelly Hunt originally moved here for a job in graphic design. Yet before long, she was also a regular at open mics, earning a spot every second Saturday night at the Westport Saloon, as well as a prominent showcase at this year’s Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City.
Her first album, Even the Sparrow, two and a half years in the making, is out this month. With Staś Heaney’s full-voiced fiddle and a line-up of area musicians rounding out her Appalachia-tinged songs, the record reveals Hunt’s power as both a songwriter and a musician.
Whether it’s pulling listeners through one of the most painful — and normal — stories of lost love imaginable on the haunting “Across the Great Divide,” or leading a gospel blowout like “Gloryland,” Hunt’s voice draws in fans just as much as her banjo.
“I always think of my first instrument as my voice,” says Hunt, whose mother studied vocal performance at UMKC. “That’s the first thing I really felt at home with. I was always singing as a child.”
But Hunt was drawn to banjo early on, too, listening to her uncle play bluegrass in Mountain View, Arkansas.
“I think that’s the first time I really saw a banjo being played and connected with it. I was just struck by how distinctive its voice is. It just has so much character.”
The sound of Hunt's banjo on Even the Sparrow can be a surprise — not always the folk or bluegrass picking listeners might expect.
“It’s such a meaty instrument,” she insists. “I think people think of banjo as being really loud and tinny. It has a very quiet and emotive quality as well.”
Hunt plays a four-string tenor banjo that’s nearly a century old. A friend introduced her to it.
“I wasn’t even looking for another banjo,” she remembers. “It had the original calfskin head. I just picked it and it had such a different warm, mellow, soulful quality to it.”
Every banjo has a story; this one also has a name.
“That banjo came with a little piece of paper that said it was played by a man named Ira, in his Dog and Pony show from 1920 to 1935,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, you’re Ira then.’”
That history is even visible on the banjo itself.
“Because it’s the leather head, you see the oils seep into the skin. I can see where he held the banjo head, where Ira tapped it and played it. He’s left his mark on it, his oils are still in there,” she notes.
Someday, that banjo might have to be named “Kelly.”
“(My marks) are on a whole different side of the head now, and I’ve made my mark, too,” she says.
The instrument helps mark Hunt’s new album with nostalgia and even homesickness for her native South — its beauty, its heartbreak and its history.
Her song “Men in Blue and Gray” tells the story of a Civil War photographer forced to use his glass photography plates to repair a greenhouse damaged by a fallen tree limb. She studied visual arts in college and had made her own photographs on glass plates. So when she heard about this photographer and the greenhouse, Hunt says, she was “flooded with all this imagery of what it would be like to be inside of one of those structures.”
The chorus of “Men in Blue and Gray” lingers on the images of battlefield carnage projected on the new life within the greenhouse. It showcases Hunt’s ability to capture imagery as well as her storytelling.
Such songs have made “Banjo” Kelly Hunt’s name distinct. But this Kelly Hunt has met the other one, and far from being rivals, the R & B Kelley Hunt and her husband Al are even mentors.
“She’s a strong songwriter,” says Piano Kelley Hunt. “Her instrumentation serves her songs and her singing voice so well. It’s such an emotional, visceral thing. It just blows me away we have phonetically the same name.”
Their respect is mutual.
“We both tap into similar things,” Kelly Hunt says of Kelley Hunt. “There’s a lot of soul in her music. We’re just two different flavors.”
Kelly Hunt releases "Even the Sparrow" in a sold-out show at 7 p.m. on Sunday, August 26 at the Buffalo Room, 817 Westport Rd, Kansas City, Missouri 64111.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.