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One of the area's top guitarists gets national spotlight with Son Volt tour

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: St. Louis musician Gary Hunt is always eager to play his own guitar, dobro, mandolin or fiddle, but he is reluctant to blow his own horn.

When he is asked about his band affiliations, the answer comes back so … matter-of-factly:

“I play with a band called Swing DeVille, which is a gypsy jazz swing band. I play a couple of times a month with a hard country band called the Grovers. I play with a Western swing band called the Palominos. I play with Sandy Weltman in a gypsy band called Hot Club Caravan. I play with a bluegrass band, the Lonesome Pines. And then I also play with Nick Nixon, who is a pretty well known songwriter and big country guy in St. Louis.”

Hunt is also a main cog in Colonel Ford, a successor to the country/rockabilly band Rockhouse Ramblers. Kip Loui, Hunt's former bandmate in the Ramblers, says: “Gary's a low-key kind of guy. Never brags, never draws attention to himself. Completely humble about his own talents, which are considerable. The man is easily one of the best guitarists in the St Louis region. Country is his home base, but he's equally adept playing rock or swing or bluegrass or blues.

“And his songs! Guy's a top-notch songwriter who comes up with these ditties that sound like classic jukebox fare. Seriously, if I was Gary's agent, I'd be hawking his material to some of the more roots-oriented acts down in Nashville.”

Now Hunt is in the brightest spotlight of his career, touring with Belleville native Jay Farrar and his internationally known band Son Volt.

A multi-instrumentalist

“Gary and I have been playing since about 2009,” says Farrar, who formed Son Volt out of the ashes of the seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo in 1995. “We did a lot of touring together, so when I was back in St. Louis, I'd fall into playing pedal steel when he needed a pedal steel player for Colonel Ford. And Gary's a multi-instrumentalist. It's really amazing that he can switch from fiddle to lead guitar.”

Hunt will be playing all of his instruments on Son Volt's current tour, which stops at the Pageant on June 1. But he mainly played fiddle on Son Volt's new CD, “Honky Tonk,” along with his Swing DeVille/Palominos/Colonel Ford bandmate Justin Branum. Together, Hunt and Branum crafted the classic twin-fiddle sound that Farrar was after.

“Twin fiddles have to be worked out so that the harmonies line up, the bowing, you got to have a lot of things in sync,” Hunt says. “There's a lot of things involved with it. It took a long time, but Jay was good with it, it was the sound he wanted, and we were able to get it.”

Hunt picked up the fiddle because his grandfather had a couple of them in his basement, and then he started playing more bluegrass and hard country. But his musical horizons continued to expand.

“I was in a band called the Mid-Missouri Hell Band (1977 through 1980) that played everything,” he says. “We played hard Chicago blues because the singer, Mike Henderson, who is now a songwriter, was a great harmonica player. And we played bluegrass, we played Western swing, we played country rock, we played everything. So I was playing pedal steel and mandolin and fiddle and electric guitar and dobro and acoustic guitar. And I've kind of just always done that since then.”

Hunt, 57, has been a musical fixture in the region for more than three decades. A St. Louis native and Parkway West graduate who lives in Kirkwood, he started on piano at age 5.

“I kept with that until I was in eighth grade, with private lessons and recital stuff, and then I started playing guitar when I was about 10,” he says. “This is about 1965, music was fairly simple then and you could learn a handful of chords and just start playing. I was playing parties in 6th grade.”

Hunt was influenced by the acoustic music of Doc Watson and Norman Blake, and then by the Beatles. He is a self-taught guitarist and, like many of his generation, his first guitar was a Silvertone bought for him by a relative, in his case his grandfather. Granddad also bought drums for one of his brothers and a bass for his other brother, creating an instant family band during the boys' high school years. (The brothers are still a band, only their instruments are hammers and saws in a contracting business that makes up Hunt's day job.)

“I listened to Eric Clapton and the Kings – Albert King and B.B. King, and all those guys,” Hunt says. “And then when I was 15, (I) read all the guitar books; and all these guys are talking about (pioneer jazz guitarist) Django Reinhardt, so I started listening to him in the early '70s, and he's probably the main influence on me. And I of course liked Telecaster playing – James Burton and Danny Gatton and those guys, Albert Lee, country stuff, Les Paul.”

The Riverfront Times named Hunt St. Louis' best Telecaster player in 2010.

Hunt's association with Farrar is relatively recent. Farrar's brother Dade is the bass player in Colonel Ford, for which Jay Farrar has been moonlighting on pedal steel guitar when home from the road.

Farrar connection

“I knew Dade before I knew Jay,” says Hunt, who has three children, including a son and daughter intent on becoming musical successes in Nashville. “I knew who Jay was. Obviously, if you play music, you know who he is. I think I saw one of the last Uncle Tupelo shows at Mississippi Nights when they were doing their last run. … But I didn't really meet Jay. He'd come out and see the Ramblers occasionally, he kind of sneaks in and sneaks out, which is his way.

“But then about three, maybe four years ago, Dade booked a show over in Belleville, and Jay brought a lap steel over, it was just Dade, Jay and myself, and we played, and it was just packed with all the Bellevillian people those guys know.”

Hunt met Dade Farrar when the bassist was playing with current Rough Shop members Andy Ploof, John Wendland and Spencer Marquart in One Fell Swoop in the late '90s. About that time, Hunt auditioned for a spot in Belle Starr, a band fronted by Loui and singer/songwriter Lynne Reiff (now in Salt of the Earth). Guitarist John Horton, now with the Bottle Rockets, was at that audition, and Loui and Horton diverted Hunt to their Rockhouse Ramblers, which also featured drummer Danny Kathriner. Hunt lobbied Dade Farrar to join the Ramblers, too.

When the Ramblers stopped rambling full-time, the players, minus Loui, continued as Colonel Ford with a more fluid lineup given the players' other band memberships. With Son Volt on hiatus for most of the past four years, Jay Farrar looked to stretch out and started learning to play pedal steel guitar, sitting in with Colonel Ford when he was in town. He also started showing up in the audience at some of Hunt's other shows, such as at Stovall's Grove in Wildwood, where, Hunt says, “I would look up and he'd be standing there, just taking it in.”

Farrar eventually asked Hunt to tour with him as a duo, playing some mandolin and fiddle as well as acoustic guitar. They did that a couple of times over about two years until Farrar restarted Son Volt last year, and Hunt joined the band for a handful of shows.

Hunt and Son Volt played 10 April shows in support of “Honky Tonk.” After a break for most of May, the main tour will kick off with an appearance at the Wakarusa festival in Ozark, Ark., and the Pageant show June 1, followed by 22 shows in 29 days, “which is a lot of shows, more than I've done in a long time,” Hunt says.

Interestingly, considering the close relationships and musical intertwinings of local musicians, Hunt admits that he “was never a big fan of Son Volt, to tell you the truth,” mostly because his music listening tends to be of older acts.

“I heard their stuff on the radio and I was like, yeah, you know,” Hunt says. “When Jay asked me to play, I didn't know his songs, I had to learn them all. I still have to learn it, when he sends a set list out and there's something on it I don't know. But I like his songwriting.”

He adds, matter-of-factly of course:

“I mean, it's great to play, we (Son Volt) played at Hardly Strictly (Bluegrass Festival) in San Francisco last year, and there's 30,000 people at the stage, so it's cool, no doubt.”

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