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Kelly Hunt

Singer/songwriter Kelly Hunt’s new album, Ozark Symphony, is the fruit of many journeys. Set against a backdrop of the Midwest prairie, Ozark Mountains, and Mississippi river delta which have shaped the contours of her life most intimately, its songs chart a course through universal stories of life’s peaks and valleys. Taken as a whole, this album establishes Hunt as a vital voice in Americana music, standing shoulder to shoulder with modern-traditionalist songwriter/poets such as Anaïs Mitchell and Gillian Welch.

For Hunt, making Ozark Symphony was a journey in and of itself, one which led her to producer Dirk Powell and his Cypress House studio in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, on the banks of Bayou Teche. Powell, whose musical pedigree runs deep in Celtic, Cajun, and old-time music, drew from a diverse community of musicians across the US and UK—including Natalie Haas on cello, multi-instrumentalist virtuoso Mike McGoldrick on Irish flute and Uilleann pipes, and Kai Welch on trumpet and accordion—to cultivate a lush sonic landscape around the album’s 12 tracks.

The album’s title track was born on a twilight drive through the stretch of Ozarks that connects Hunt’s former home in Missouri to her native home in Memphis, TN. Hunt reflects: “While I’ve never lived squarely in the Ozarks, they seem to have served as a passageway between the defining destinations of my life. When choosing a title track for this record, ‘Ozark Symphony’ stood out to both Dirk and me as the clear choice. That phrase seems to embody the spirit of the story I’ve set out to tell while also expressing, in a broader sense, the way I see myself and the music I make—an uncanny cross between the earthy and classical influences of my upbringing.”

The song “Evangeline” is a thematic centerpiece of the album. It is a dramatic reimagining of the Evangeline story—a folktale inspired by true events and immortalized by the 19th-century Longfellow poem. It is the story of an Acadian exile whose search for her long-lost love takes her on a harrowing journey across the American frontier, down through the Ozark Mountains, and ultimately to Louisiana, where she settles at journey’s end. Hunt felt a powerful connection to the Evangeline story long before she discovered that her ancestors were among those Acadian wayfarers, and long before she knew that her own journey would lead her on a parallel path across the Ozarks down to Louisiana, where she now resides. The three verses of the song are written from the perspective of three different characters in the story. Hunt is joined on the track by one of her favorite vocalists, Rachel Sermanni.

The song “On the Bayou” is also inspired by the Evangeline tale. Hunt recalls it bubbling up just a couple weeks before recording the album. Its chorus is an invocation of sorts: “Evangeline, tell me what you know…” A plea for guidance across time and space from one lovelorn woman to another, and a summoning of the same lodestar that led Evangeline to the live oak on the banks of Bayou Teche where her search was fulfilled.

Other songs explore Hunt’s Southern roots. On a road trip back to Tennessee to visit her folks one summer, Hunt chanced upon a compilation of Hank Williams Sr.’s greatest hits at a truckstop and took a deep dive into his catalog. Sitting on the front porch of her childhood home with banjo in hand, Hank’s classic gospel tune “Lost Highway” still fresh in mind, she decided to take a walk down the driveway, her tenor banjo still strapped to her. “It was a perfect late summer’s day, golden hour,” she remembers. “My dad had a bonfire going, and the smoke was coming through the trees, catching the long shafts of sunlight. It was a rarefied moment. Just then I heard a rustling of leaves at my feet and looked down to see a big brown snake just a few inches away. I stopped, it stopped, neither of us moved. For whatever reason, I started nervously plucking my banjo…just a simple, spontaneous riff.” And thus Hunt’s own “Lost Highway” unfurled.

Another stand-out track is the simple duet, What About Now?” The spare arrangement is the perfect vehicle for Powell’s mandolin and harmony vocals. Together Hunt and Powell tease out the playfulness of this song—light-hearted and tender with a touch of melancholy—while simultaneously evoking a sense of restless urgency, which Hunt says she was feeling keenly at the time.

The album closes with a cappella song, “Over the Mountain,” which Hunt wrote on a gorgeous summer morning en route to a funeral. She explains that it was a charged moment—equal parts grief and gratitude, beauty and sadness—which called to mind something a friend’s grandmother used to say: “There’s a comin’, there’s a goin’.” On their first meeting, deep in the heart of the Ozarks, just as dusk was falling and the cicadas struck up their chorus, Powell made an impromptu recording of Hunt singing this song inside of an ancient cave which once served as a Native American ceremonial site. He later spliced this live version into the studio track (featuring harmonies by Rachel Sermanni and Powell’s daughter, Amelia Powell), bringing the album full circle with a veritable Ozark symphony, as timeless and true as the mountains themselves.

Kelly Hunt is a native of Memphis, TN. From an early age, she was exposed to music spanning from Rachmaninov to Joni Mitchell to Mississippi John Hurt. She grew up singing in choirs, poring over poetry books, and writing her own music as a matter of course, first on piano, then banjo. After being introduced to the banjo in college while studying French and visual arts, Hunt began to develop her own improvised style of playing, combining old-time picking styles with the percussive origins of the instrument. After graduation, Hunt embarked on a rambling path through career pursuits in farming, culinary arts, and graphic design, ultimately landing in Kansas City, where she recorded her 2019 debut release, Even The Sparrow, which received a nomination for the International Folk Music Awards “Album of the Year.” No Depression describes her songs as “the musical equivalent of a book you can’t put down, one you’ll want to revisit again and again to catch every nuance and turn of phrase.” She is now based out of New Orleans, LA.Hunt has inspired praise from a wide range of critics including Rolling Stone Country, which wrote that “Kelly Hunt sings with the lilting cadence of a folksinger born somewhere far away, sometime long ago.”