Charlie Hunter hasn't used his famous 8-string bass-guitar hybrid for some three years now. These days, it's seven strings. He's got the low three of a bass and the middle four of a guitar, all tuned a minor third higher than normal. He happily abandoned the highest string in favor of a more condensed and practical version of his one-of-a-kind instrument. He may be practicing more drums than guitar nowadays anyway. His 2nd solo album, Public Domain, is highly percussive. Released on his own label, Public Domain kicks the dust off eleven old standards from his grandfather's era, who turns one hundred this year.
No Hassle in the Public Domain
The songs on the new album, along with hundreds others from the early 20th century, are no longer protected by copyright laws. For Charlie Hunter that means less hassle getting permission to play those songs. But it also means no royalty payments :
Part of it was - I mean I don't really sell enough records to - if I paid out royalties it would be like 'Oh here's your two dollar check' - but really it's more of like, not having to deal with the hassle of it. There's a lot of crossing of T's and dotting of I's that go into it...it's kind of a hassle.
Composers retain exclusive rights to their music until they die, and for the next 70 years. Every year, a new group of songs lose their copyright protection, opening what Charlie calls "a treasure trove" of music. Charlie had fun talking over songs from the early 1920's with his grandfather, going back in time with him, as he re-imagined the old music for his new album. The stories his grandfather shared helped Charlie realize some of the tunes more fully. The album notes include a note from Charlie's granddad:
"These are wonderful old songs that we enjoyed listening to on crank-up Victrolas and on tube radios many decades ago... His guitar finds their essence and sings them in today's language."
A Kid in a Bus
Charlie was introduced to life on the road at an early age when, after living in Rhode Island, his mother packed up and headed West, with him and his younger sister, in a bus.
Oh yeah well we didn't just head west. We lived in a school bus that was painted camoflauge with a revolving cast of very interesting people and a wood burning stove. I guess my mom was a proto-hippie? She was a little too old, like five or six years older than the hippies, and her interest was primarily those old blues guys. A lot of times we would find ourselves in a bunch of other buses or, you know, hanging around some old blues guy's house...
They traveled around following those blues guys in a bus, or caravan of buses; a life oddly foreshadowing that of a musician on the road today, and one that certainly must have inspired and influenced his musical mind.
C is For C-List?
All grown up, and considered a sort of jazz savant, Charlie Hunter is certainly a master of his domain. Busy this weekend with continuing sets at Jazz St. Louis' Jazz at the Bistro,
guitar workshops (that he just found out about today but is happy to do anyway), and tour stops around the country (in a bus), he is the first to admit his pay must resemble that of a public radio worker. But Charlie's grateful for the life he's able to make with music:
I'm like a 12th-tier Celebrity - that's like somewhere above a mailman but below a city council member you know what I mean? So I have neither fame nor money. I mean, I'm making a living which I'm really, I have to say, I'm glad I can still somehow manage to do in this economy when so many people are not.
Charlie Hunter spoke with Steve Potter on Cityscape today. Listen to the entire program for samples from Public Domain. His sets at Jazz St. Louis' Jazz at the Bistro continue through Saturday night, with sets at 8:30 and 10:15. He is hosting a workshop tomorrow afternoon, January 22nd, at Fazio's Frets and Friends.