Port Orchard singer-songwriter James Hunnicutt takes the stage in separate performances in Port Gamble and Bremerton on Sunday. We spoke with the longtime musician about his longtime career as a musician, the silver linings of an otherwise challenging 2020, and what makes a killer vinyl recording.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Can you talk a bit about your background as a musician and your connection to the local music scene here in Kitsap County?
Born in Everett, raised in the Kitsap County area, Port Orchard/Bremerton. Started playing when I was 12 years old. Started my first band, a metal band called Aggressor, when I was 13 and have played in some 40 to 45 bands, many which are in the Kitsap County area, since then. The bands that would be more well known in the area would probably be bands like Neutral Boy, the Swinos, Misery Seed, Woodrot. I had a rockabilly band that did pretty well for a time that was called James Hunnicutt and the Revolvers. I also played guitar for Wayne Hancock who is based out of Texas, kind of like a Hank Williams reincarnate. If you’re into that stuff, he’s a really legendary guy. I played with him for awhile in 2009. I played in a revved-up thrash metal meets bluegrass band called Jayke Orvis and the Broken Band. I was the Washington guy, Jayke was from Pittsburgh, our fiddle player was from Brickenridge, Texas, and our bass player — we had two — but I think one was out of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
I guess primarily, though, I’ve been a solo act which I started doing about 30 years ago, 25 years ago, and I've been doing that steadily. That’s been my main gig the last probably 15 years. And doing that, and playing with Jayke Orvis and the Broken Band, toured around the continental U.S. countless times, and toured Europe up until last year with COVID the last 10 years running, too. So music has been the main kind of thing that I’ve been doing artistically, and also trying to make a living at as well.
Can you talk about your sound as a singer-songwriter, and any influences or inspiration that informs your music?
As far as the solo thing goes, I started playing old rock and roll, old rockabilly, old country kind of tunes, like Elvis and Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, that kind of stuff. And then that kind of morphed into the singer-songwriter thing. Those influences are still there for sure, but—
[The phone reception cut out for about 30 seconds]
… as opposed to a divider, if that makes any sense with how I convey what I’m saying. Because I want it to reach people.
A big part of this too I should mention is, I got sober about 19 years ago — off and on, but have not been drunk since then — and that’s been a huge factor, too. Music became the medicine that helped me stay on that path. Through doing that as the years went on and traveling and meeting wonderful people and having wonderful experiences all over the world doing this, it really showed me how powerful and unifying — really transcendental — music can be as a language and a medium to share with people. Beyond the music style and artistic expression and influence, that’s the one core thing that is important to me, with this or anything else I do, is it has to have good energy in it. The intent has to be positive, but that’s the goal. And everything else style-wise in what I’m trying to do, as far as the musical flavors go, is secondary to that.
You cut out for a bit just after talking about the Elvis/Hank Williams/Johnny Cash influence, and before talking about getting sober. I hate to make you repeat yourself, but can you reiterate what you said?
I think I was talking about how ‘60s and ‘70s folk influences were really big, which I got from my mother. And also playing in punk bands when I was younger, kind of connecting the dots between folk music and punk rock, which, really, folk is like the original rock, you could say. Definitely driven by social issues and political issues, so doing that and by playing after getting sober, and playing music sober and traveling around doing it, just meeting wonderful people and the connection that that brought, and how healing it was not just for me but for other people, too, it made it much bigger than myself. It kind of kicked my ego out of the picture, you could say. That’s really the one kind of common denominator to whatever I do in music and life, is that it’s got to be constructive, not just for me but for the world around me. So that’s really what drives the lyrics today, whether it’s about addiction or loneliness or death — some real heavy, dark stuff — but it’s driven by compassion and empathy, and past the music stylings that’s the most important ingredient to me.
You talked about bridging the gap between folk and punk. Lately I’ve been into “folk-punk” and exploring some of the bands in that scene. I know folk-punk is kind of its own thing, but would you say you fit into that genre, or that you’re more exploring different aspects of those two genres separately?
That’s a really good question, because honestly, I’ve heard very little quote unquote “folk punk” that I’ve been exposed to that I cared for. The theme behind it, the idea, though — I think I have a lot in common with that. But musically, a lot of it reminds me of, like, Fat Wreck Chords, NOFX kind of ‘90s punk that I really don’t care for. As a style I’m not the biggest fan of it. I’ve been labeled that and had people tell me that they think what I do is folk-punk, and I can see that, but whether I sound like the artists that come to mind or not, there’s definitely similarities there. It’s folky, it’s acoustic, and it definitely has something to say with the intent of doing something constructive or making people think. To me, that’s what punk is supposed to be about.
What have you been doing to stay busy in the past year or so in the midst of COVID-19? And how does it feel to start getting back on stage and performing live?
It’s been a crazy time. I think it’s been a crazy time for everyone that’s being honest with themselves and that wasn’t financially living in a very wealthy bubble prior to COVID. I think it’s been a really difficult time. Music has definitely been what helped to keep me sober and having a positive mindset. It’s been one of the biggest ingredients, and having performing live taken away during this time has been really rough, and the people I know who do this for a living or do it a lot, like I do, it’s been really tough. It takes your practice, what you do to make it through the day … that’s just kinda discarded and you’ve got to figure something else out.
Which is hard, but good, too, because it keeps you on your toes and makes you reassess where you’re at and walk your talk, because it’s easier to be happy when things are going easy. When they’re not, then you’ve got to dig a little deeper. It makes you grow. So it’s been hard, but I’m grateful for that, and past that kind of personal growth, it has given me the time to create a lot more. I’ve been working on … I couldn’t even tell you how many; 20 to 30 different albums, projects that have been in the works or brewing since I was a teenager, like over the last 30 years, and was too busy bouncing around playing shows to give it the energy and attention that I would have liked to or wanted to. So that’s been one big silver lining, is being able to create so much more, not just trying to get a record done before the next tour and rushing things or feeling rushed. You have all the time in the world to create. So that’s awesome. Everything else has been really hard, but that’s pretty cool.
You talked about silver linings, and I think another one in this whole COVID-19 situation is just how much people took for granted that they don’t anymore because COVID made it clear that so much of our day-to-day lives was kind of fragile.
Totally, you nailed it. I could not agree more. I try to make gratitude, that’s kind of my mantra: “Gratitude is rad-itude.” Whatever it is, even when it’s tough, letting that lead the way, finding the value in the situation or the experience, even when it’s just brutal, when it’s really hard. Still being thankful anyway. And I’ve seen that from a lot of people, people that I’ve talked to as well, and I hope that throughout the chaos and the ugly that’s been going on during this time, the divisiveness, that on a personal level more and more people will wake up to that and be more grateful, and realize that, yeah, life is fragile and our way of doing things in our lives and humanity and this country is incredibly fragile. It’s not nearly as tough and impervious and mighty as we like to think it is, and so hopefully it will cause us to be more grateful and maybe think about a lot of these things. Because down the road, climate change and pandemics are not going to be something that just happens and we’re in the gold, and systemic racism as well; these are issues, ongoing things, that we need to work on to improve. In a sense, as tough as this time has been, it’s also kind of a practice run as to how we can and should behave and treat each other in the future … that gratitude and appreciating the fragility of life, to not take it for granted so much, to make the most of right now.
You mentioned that you had the opportunity to work on some projects during COVID. Are you going to be playing anything new this weekend?
I’ve got one song specifically that’s going to be on a forthcoming album, which I’ve actually been performing it for the last ... I think I started playing right before the pandemic. I’ll be playing that song. What’s the name of it … I haven’t worked on that particular album for awhile … dang, this is bad. I can’t even remember the name of my own song.
As long as you remember the lyrics!
Sometimes I do, and when I don’t, I laugh it off and keep going to the next one. You’ve got to. You can’t be a diva about it. That’s the worst thing in the world when you see someone have a temper tantrum on stage because they screw up or they don’t like the sound. I’m totally anti-that. I laugh it off if I screw up, usually talk about it, and if I don't remember it, then I move on to the next song and maybe I remember to play it later and do it right. You’ve just got to enjoy it and take it off the cuff. God, I can’t remember the name of the song! But anyway, there’s one newer song and perhaps another song that I’ve yet to play live that just got released via a label called Piece of Pie Records, put together by Zander Schloss of the Circle Jerks and Tom Carolan, who’s a really famous producer who, among other things, helped sign Stone Temple Pilots, I believe. Some big bands in the ‘90s like that. It’s a charity label, actually, so all the proceeds from… my particular song — it’s called “Our Time,” and it’s about teen depression/suicide awareness — the proceeds from that are going to the Jed Foundation. That’s what they do, is help teens deal with depression and prevent teen suicide. If I get that song down, I’m hoping to play that at this show as well.
Speaking of labels, have you mostly been independent or worked with labels? I know these days it’s not uncommon for artists to take a hybrid approach where they release some music independently and work with labels on other projects.
It’s mostly hybrid — mostly self-released at this point. I’ve self-released all of my solo albums, but I’ve also had labels out of Germany and Tennessee that have put out some of those releases on vinyl, LP releases, and then this song on Piece of Pie Records, too. It’s going to be a bit of both. I’m hoping to diversify that more in days to come, too. Because I was incredibly independent, I think almost to a fault, which you’ve kind of got to be. The old mechanism of the idea of sending your music off and some big label liking it and putting money behind you is next to obsolete. That’s very rare that that happens anymore. So you kind of have to DIY it, but not DIY it to a fault. I think just to diversify it, like the ingredients in food, it’s good to mix things up. The more you diversify and the more different entities you work with, it’s enriching and also you’re going to have a farther reach with what you’re doing, because there’s more avenues that you’re staring into rather than just trying to be super linear about it.
I’m interested in self-publishing, and there’s some similarities there in terms of, people go out to publish a book on their own, and just because you wrote the book doesn’t mean you can do all the different aspects of publishing it yourself. You have to hire a copyeditor and a cover designer, etc. There’s all these disparate elements that you may not have the skillset to do. It seems like it’s probably similar with music, where you produce the album, but you need to find other people in the community that can help with other aspects that aren’t necessarily your strong suit.
Totally, I agree 100 percent. Exactly, same kind of thing. You’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot trying to do it all. I tried to do that, and what I’ve experienced myself, and people I know that have been really hardcore, you know, done hundreds of shows a year for years on end, like I’ve done, is that if you’re trying to do that and you’re playing and pushing that hard and trying to do all these things — promote your releases, do your album art, all the PR kind of stuff — you burn out hard. It’s way too much for one person to do. Most of the artists you can think of, if not all of them, that have attained a larger level of success have huge teams behind them. It’s a big production. Like you said, you have these different entities and people handling these different functions, so in theory the artist can really focus on writing and creating and performing, which is the main objective with it anyway, in the literal sense. So I totally agree.
You mentioned some labels have put some of your stuff out on vinyl. How do you feel about the whole vinyl craze right now?
I dig it. It’s never not been a thing for me. I grew up listening to records and buying records. If I like the band, I always have preferred to have the vinyl release than the tape or the CD. It’s cool, because it helps with physical formats like CDs almost kind of being a dinosaur at this point. Vinyl coming back is how artists like me can make money actually selling your music, because most people will pay Spotify or whatever a couple bucks a month, and you’ll get fractions of a penny for that, being a small guy. The vinyl thing, it’s super cool. It's kind of essential for independent artists. That’s a way that you can get merchandise; with vinyl, you can actually make some money past what you might make at the show. Without vinyl making a comeback, there’s not really another physical format that makes a substantial kind of cash flow.
I actually just bought my first record and I don’t even have a record player yet. My dad has one I’ll use until then, but it’s a band I really like and people always rave about the superior quality of vinyl and how it has that warmth to it, so I was curious how it would sound on vinyl.
That’s cool. What record did you get?
It’s by a band called Starflyer 59. It’s an older album of theirs. It’s called “IAMACEO.” I’m part of a Facebook group for the band and a lot of them on there hate this album, but I really like it, so I’m excited to see what it sounds like on vinyl. Do you find that there is a different quality to the sound on vinyl versus digital or CDs?
Oh yeah, totally. The real big kicker though is it depends on how it’s mastered. I don’t know if you’re familiar with mastering, but mastering is kind of like the final EQ process after an album is mixed. It can really make or break an album. You can have a great mix, great performance, great sounding record, and if you get the wrong person mastering it or EQ it the wrong way, it can really take away that sparkle and magic, or it can really push it to the next level. And the thing with vinyl is because it’s more bass heavy, you have to master it different than you would for CD or digital download or streaming, and it’s having someone — if you’re not mastering it yourself with that knowledge, having someone who can do that and do it well, because if it’s mastered for vinyl well, then the record is going to sound fantastic, and it is warmer. It’s really weird — sometimes you can hear more. These little things will just pop out in the mix that don’t pop out the same way when you’re listening to it digitally. It’s hard to explain, but if you get a really good vinyl release of something you really dig, especially if it’s got rawness — if it’s rock and roll or punk or metal, something that’s got an edge, kind of a nasty dirtiness to it already — it sounds so much nastier and dirtier and more real; it’s just got more of a bite to it than it does on a CD. I’m a big, big vinyl fan.
Is this weekend going to be your first time performing since COVID?
Aside from some online things I did via Facebook over the last year and a half, this will be … I think this will be my fourth show. My first show since March of last year. I was on tour in California when things got shut down. Our next show was supposed to be St. Patrick’s Day at the Doll Hut in Anaheim. My first physical show since was in May of this year at The Point Casino in Kingston. This will be my fourth show, but first kind of chill, local show. The casino show was fun, but it’s different playing at a casino than playing at a club or a bar. It’s a little bit more down to earth, you know?
I should mention, too, that I actually have two shows this Sunday. I’m playing the Port Gamble days … I think it’s called Port Gamble Days [It’s called Port Gamble Summer Faire —ed.], an outdoor thing in Port Gamble that goes from noon to 5. I think I play around 2 or something. [He plays at 2:30 —ed.] And then I’m going to the Charleston to play the show there.