For James Hunnicutt, music is less about any particular sound than it is about making a positive difference in the world.
To be sure, the sound is an important part of his music. Hunnicutt, a singer-songwriter based out of Port Orchard who’s headlining a show this Sunday at the Charleston, played in a variety of rock and rockabilly bands throughout his career. The spirit of ‘60s and ‘70s folk music is a major influence on his solo music, along with a dash of rock and country courtesy of artists like Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
But since he became sober about 19 years ago, music became the medicine that kept him on the straight-and-narrow, he says.
“As the years went on, traveling and meeting wonderful people and having wonderful experiences all over the world with this [playing music], it really showed me how powerful and unifying — really transcendental — music can be as a language and medium to share with people,” he says. “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.”
That was easier said than done over the past year as the country grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic. “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,” he says. “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.”
Yet, Hunnicutt insists silver linings have emerged from the pandemic. For one, the trials people have faced over the past year have forced them to grow. “It keeps you on your toes and makes you reassess where you’re at and walk your talk,” he says. “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.”
Another bright side: All the down time during the lockdowns gave Hunnicutt time to work on projects that had long sat on the backburner. He says he’s probably had 20 to 30 different album projects brewing over the last 30 years that he finally got a chance to sit down and work on. At this weekend’s show, he’s hoping to debut a song called “Our Time” being put out by the charity record label Piece of Pie Records. The song is about teen depression and suicide awareness, and proceeds will benefit the Jed Foundation, which works on teen suicide prevention.
It’s driven by compassion and empathy, and past the music stylings, that’s the most important ingredient to me
Hunnicutt started playing music when he was 12, starting his first band, called Aggressor, when he was 13. Since then he’s played in some 40-45 bands, he says, including Neutral Boy, the Swinos, Misery Seed, and Woodrot. He had a rockabilly band for a while called James Hunnicutt and the Revolvers, and played guitar for Texas-based musician Wayne Hancock and with the “metal-meets-bluegrass” band Jayke Orvis and the Broken Band.
He’s been performing his solo act for the past 25 years or so, and it’s become his main gig for about the past 15 years, he says. He’s toured the continental U.S. countless times, and also toured in Europe, he says.
In some ways, Hunnicutt’s act connects the dots between folk and punk music, he says, noting that his music is driven by social and political issues. He aims to write music that is constructive not just for him, but for the world around him. “That’s really what drives the lyrics today, whether it’s about addiction or loneliness or death — some real heavy, dark stuff,” he says. “But it’s driven by compassion and empathy, and past the music stylings, that’s the most important ingredient to me.”
Hunnicutt wouldn’t necessarily classify himself as “folk-punk,” though. “I’ve heard very little quote-unquote ‘folk punk’ that I’ve been exposed to that I cared for,” he says. “The theme behind it, the idea, though — I think I have a lot in common with that. … I’ve been labeled that and had people tell me they think what I do is folk-punk.”
There are certainly similarities — his music is acoustic and folky — but ultimately he thinks it’s his proclivity to write music that is constructive and makes people think that bridges the gap between the two genres. “To me, that’s what punk is supposed to be about,” he says.
Hunnicutt is also performing at 2:30 p.m., Aug. 8, at Port Gamble’s Summer Faire.
Check out Hunnicutt’s music and merch on his website.
Photo credit: Courtesy of James Hunnicutt