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Time is right for Kelley Hunt

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

If Kelley Hunt were playing sugar-coated pop music, her age might matter. If she were aiming for the crowd of 12-year-olds who would be ready to move onto the next thing by the time they were 13-year-olds, it might matter that Hunt was not 22. If Hunt were more concerned about her image than her music, it might matter how many years Hunt has lived.”I think it depends on what your goals are, and what you want to accomplish,” said Hunt, a boogie-woogie keyboardist and singer who headlines KDNK’s Blues, BBQ & Beer, a benefit for the Carbondale community radio station set for Saturday, Aug. 9, in downtown Carbondale. “If somebody wants to spend thousands of dollars on your career, there’s a very narrow band of thinking. There’s a big stigma about age.”Hunt’s ambitions, however, have always been about musical excellence. And musicianship doesn’t respect boundaries of age. For proof, Hunt needs only to look as far as her No. 1 idol, Bonnie Raitt, who has continued to evolve artistically into her 50s. Hunt didn’t release her debut until the mid-1990s, after years spent playing in other people’s bands and raising her son. Delaying a solo career until your 30s is practically unthinkable in the pop world, but in the blues/r&b domain that Hunt lives in, it is apparently not much of a handicap. She has appeared at such top-shelf festivals as the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival, the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival and Seattle’s Bumbershoot. Almost everywhere she performs, she draws raves; the Minneapolis Star Tribune has called Hunt “a full-blown phenomenon.” In fact, at 46, Hunt is, in a sense, just getting revved up. For years, it has been a point of pride with Hunt that she has been so self-reliant. Her two CDs – the self-titled 1995 debut, and 2000’s “Inspiration” – were both released on Hunt’s own 88 Records. Both albums featured nothing but Hunt’s own songs. The two discs have combined to sell in excess of 65,000 copies, a figure impressive enough to capture the attention of the higher levels of the roots-music industry.Hunt’s latest album, which she has finished recording and hopes to have released later this year, is being shopped to bigger labels, a huge jump for her. She has handed over production duties to two top producers: Gary Nicholson, best known for his collaborations with Delbert McClinton, and Garth Fundis, a highly regarded Nashville record-maker. The album, as yet untitled, was recorded in Fundis’ Sound Emporium studios, birthplace of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. It’s a new world Hunt has stepped into, and it is both frightening and fascinating. “Being in the process of perhaps moving to the next level, it’s a little terrifying and spooky,” said Hunt, who lives in the college town of Lawrence, Kan., some 60 miles from Emporia, where she grew up. “But if you work with people who are soulful and are not sharks and don’t need me because they’re successful on their own, that’s comforting. But it’s like jumping off a cliff. And I’ve chosen to jump. It’s exhilarating so far, and hopefully in the next months, we’ll see where I land.”Hunt has already leaped into new territory by taking on material that is not her own. Half of the new album will be songs contributed by others, including such notable writers as Jim Lauderdale, Jesse Winchester and Nicholson. “When people hear you’re working with these top producers, and working in one of the best studios in the world, you immediately get the onslaught of all this new material,” said Hunt, who also recorded an r&b version of the Lennon/McCartney song “The Word” for the album. “It’s a real freeing experience. I don’t feel so adamant that they have to be my songs. I’ve never been in the position of getting to pick and choose. It’s like, ‘Yippee!'”*****Hunt was known to get excited about music from a young age. With a mother who was a professional jazz and blues singer, as well as a dancer, a father who played upright bass in a Navy band, a gospel-singing grandmother, and her maternal roots in New Orleans, Hunt naturally gravitated toward music, and started playing piano at age 3. “It was pretty rocking in my house,” she said.Early on, Hunt went for the weightier styles of music – blues, soul, r&b, gospel. “I listened to ‘Bleeker Street,’ a radio show from New Orleans,” said Hunt. “You could only get it at night. It was old blues, like Howling Wolf, this stuff that always seemed wicked in third grade.”Hunt played piano by ear till she was 10, and then took two-and-a-half years of piano lessons. She was fortunate to find a teacher who didn’t mind that Hunt was interested in Professor Longhair-style boogie piano. Hunt ended up writing a song, “Queen of the 88s,” for her “wild woman” of a teacher. At the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Hunt studied opera singing and classical composition. It was a far cry from the music she makes now, but she finds the experience was worth her while. “It gave me a wider background,” said Hunt. “It stretched me out. Anything I could soak up, I did. And the things I learned have come in handy, even those I didn’t think would.”Hunt left college after two-and-a-half years to become a road musician, a sidewoman in other people’s bands. When she got married, and had her son while she was in her 20s, she chose to stay close to home. She worked in her son’s school, and played her music on weekends. Only after getting divorced and seeing her son grown up did Hunt start focusing on her music career.*****At the all-ages festivals where Hunt frequently performs, it warms her heart that she can reach listeners of all ages: old blues fans, young girls who might not even know that the music they’re dancing to is blues.”I see the young girls flock to the front of the stage. They’re interested in the fact that I write the music and sing and lead the band and play my instrument,” said Hunt. “They don’t care that I’m not 22.”And Hunt doesn’t care much that she’s not 22. She is also seeing the advantages that come with age: perspective, maturity, musical skills.”It’s really good timing in a way,” she said of her recent career advancement. “I’ve had the thought before, ‘Hey, I want these things to happen now.’ But I realize, things happen for a reason. A lot of things have happened that I never could have imagined.”Keb’ Mo’ once told me, ‘It’s a damn good thing I didn’t have this success when I was 21. I wouldn’t have know how to handle it.'”In our phone interview, Hunt doesn’t hesitate to reveal her age. She’s quite happy with herself at 46, excited at where her career might take her. And hiding her age just wouldn’t fit with someone whose music is so authentic and personal.”I’ve chosen to walk the line of, this is the truth, get over it” she said. Revealing your age “is risky, believe it or not. On the other hand, it’s the truth. This is what a 46-year-old woman’s life can be like.”


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