Gerry Hundt is just trying to keep his balance these days.
“As musicians we’re asked to walk this line between being a professional and being an artist,” he says.
Although it’s not always as easy as it looks, Hundt strolls along this line quite handily, especially since he’s become his own one-man band over the past five years, balancing several instruments at once to produce not only entertaining live performances but also some rousing blues music that recalls the best of John Hammond, Mississippi John Hurt, and the blues of the hill country of Mississippi. Hundt points out that being a one-man band requires a couple of different kinds of balancing acts: “one, the physicality involved in engaging four limbs and the head, and, two, the mental steadiness required to be aware, in the groove, and to create simultaneously.”
Hundt’s decision to become a one-man band grew out his deep desire to keep playing and creating music even in a community where he didn’t have any connections. “When I moved to Chesterton, Indiana, from Rockford, Illinois, a few years ago,” he says, “I didn’t know anybody locally, but I still wanted to play.”
The one-man band wasn’t really a new idea, for Hundt had seen several of his friends perform in this manner. Hundt recalls that his good friend and former musical partner, John Alex Mason, played as a one-man band for a while, and Hundt often traveled from Rockford to the Silver Moon Club in Darien, Wisconsin, to listen the guitarist Glenn Davis, who accompanied himself on a bass drum; also, he says, “one of the first blues shows I saw live was John Hammond at the Times Theatre in Rockford, and he played his resonator and harmonica, and he stomped his foot so hard, I saw how he created his own one-man sound. It made quite an impression on me.”
So, Hundt got a little gig at a local restaurant where he’d play guitar and harmonica and bring along a bass drum and a high hat. “When I first started,” Hundt recalls, “my greatest challenges were technological; I had a bass drum and a high hat, and then I added a snare drum on its side that I’d hit with my other foot pedal. It took a really long to set up for my gig.” Hundt then got a Farmer FootDrum kit that he can carry in a wheeled travel kit, and he could set up in about fifteen minutes.
“Before I got the Farmer, I was doing more electric guitar,” Hundt says, “but the Farmer allows me to play brushes on the snare, and the sound encouraged me to play the acoustic guitar more; there’s certain material that really lends itself to acoustic.”
Hundt’s latest album, Gerry Hundt’s Legendary One-Man Band (SteadyGroove, 2015) grew out of his performing solo in local farmers’ markets and clubs. The fifteen songs on the album—featuring nine Hundt originals—capture Hundt’s shouting blues vocals, his energetic, fluid fret work, and his funky harp playing. Hundt started this project in January 2015 and completed it in June 2015; “I recorded it live in my home studio,” Hundt tells Blues Blast.
“I sat down each night and tried to get one or two songs to tape. I wrote one or two songs during the process of recording, and I composed some instrumentals spontaneously in the studio.”
The album leaps off to a rollicking start with “Market Morning Reel,” a down-home country blues that shows off Hundt’s facile finger picking. “Stompin’ & Shoutin'” jumps off with Hundt’s chooglin’ harp work that weaves under and around his electric guitar work and his blues growl. He’s making all this music himself, establishing a groove that he keeps up on other tracks on the album, especially “Broadway Boogie,” which lives up to the promise of its title, letting your backbone slip and getting up off your chair to dance, and his cover of Jimmy Rogers’ “Goin’ Away Baby,” which starts out with a mournful mouthful of harp, then escalates to a chuggin’ harp rhythm that imitates the rocking and rolling of going down the road feeling good and bad.
With its lilting finger-picked guitar, underscored by Hundt’s ability to provide his own bass line on his guitar behind the melody, “Sunset’—with many of its phrases coming from “Silent Night”—would be just at home on a jazz album, and on “Coffee Creek,” Hundt creates a multi-layered cascade of beauty on his banjo. Hundt’s jaunty kazoo playing sparks the opening of the traditional “Salty Dog,” and on this one song, Hundt demonstrates quite readily the ways that blues and bluegrass intersect in old-time music. On “Take It Outside,” Hundt uses his kazoo to create the frenetic pace of ragtime, blues boogie that captures the anxious, jumpy, sauciness of what happens outside the doors of the bar. “Broke Down” is a traditional blues at its very best, and Hundt closes the album with an instrumental medley of two traditional gospel songs; he slows down “I Shall not Be Moved” almost to a march in a finger picking style on his resonator guitar that captures its forlorn determination, and then he picks up the pace on “I’ll Fly Away” to capture its joyful spirit, ending on a riff that resembles the sound of flight.
One of the most entertaining features of Hundt’s new album is the cover art, which was drawn by Colby Aitchison. The back cover illustrations capture each song’s subject in one drawing; so, a jaunty-looking dog in sailor’s hat depicts the tune, “Salty Dog”; “Kitchen Dance” is represented by two lovers dancing next to their stove, while in the background two mice also waltz across the floor. On the album’s front cover, Hundt, the one-man band, sits smack in the center of these depictions from the back cover. Spry and lively, the cover art of the album signals the promise of the brisk, bracing, and lively songwriting and music within the sleeves.
It’s no wonder that Gerry Hundt succeeds so well at balancing the demands of his one-man band and entertaining us with good music. His versatility on a variety of instruments has always been his hallmark. He started out playing harmonica and was always fooling around on guitar but started playing guitar seriously when he was in college. He also played bass when it was needed. “I really got heavy into blues in college; I was a blues dj at the college station, and some friends and I formed a blues band; we were doing Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Robert Cray, and Bonnie Raitt.”
One of those college friends that Hundt played with was John Alex Mason, with whom Hundt went on to record one album – Mason & Hundt (2002). Hundt contributed his instrumental virtuosity on another album of Mason playing mostly as a one-man band, Jook Joint Thunderclap (2011). “John Alex was likeably studious,” recalls Hundt, who himself majored in classics at Middlebury College in Vermont, “and he always had a gleam in his eye and a kind of a wild streak.” Mason was into pre-war blues like Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt; “the only disagreement we had in college,” recalls Hundt, “was about the original key of a Mississippi John Hurt song.” “I won’t tell you who won the argument,” laughs Hundt. Mason moved onto Vail, Colorado, after college, and eventually he invited Hundt out there to join him to play harmonica in some traditional Piedmont blues. Hundt’s striving for balance comes from Mason; “he really loved music,” says Hundt, “but he was all about living a balanced life and the importance of finding interests outside of music.”
In 2004, Hundt joined Nick Moss’ band The Flip Tops; “he brought me in as a fifth piece to play bass,” but Hundt soon became a utility player for the band, playing mandolin, banjo, guitar, and harmonica. Moss introduced Hundt to a lot of Chicago blues. He traveled with Nick Moss and The Flip Tops from until 2009, and he learned several valuable lessons. “Anyone who’s been through the Nick Moss school of life knows he’s a taskmaster; I learned two things traveling with his band: touring musicians live in gas stations, and, more important, these guys play every night like it’s gonna be their last night on earth; they bring a sheer fire and energy to their performances; I still try to do that even today in my shows.”
As a songwriter, Hundt learned from Mason always to write what you know and to tell a story. “I’m always hoarding ideas in a little notebook I have,” says Hundt, “and the inspiration for my songs grows out of the emotions that I recall that are associated with these ideas and vignettes I’ve written down.” With blues songs, he points out, there are a couple of different approaches to writing. “The more traditional blues songs don’t have a chorus or a lyrical hook, so the process of writing those is a bit more open-ended, and you get to express what you feel.” However, he says, “songs with a chorus or a hook or a distinctive melody are less open because you want all the lyrical contents to relate to it.” No matter the type of song, in the end great songs, he points out, tell stories and have a universal appeal so that anybody can sing them.
Hundt also sits behind the boards on his own albums and those of others like the Corey Dennison Band. Being a producer, according to Hundt, forces you to look at the big picture a lot. “A song you think sounds good going into a session might not look so great once you get into the studio,” he says.
When Hundt started out playing the blues, a club owner pointed out to him that he might have made a mistake simply by choosing to play this music in the first place. Back then, he was more inclined to divide music into different styles of blues like Chicago blues, Delta blues, and such. “The older and more experienced I’ve gotten,” he tells Blues Blast, “the less I compartmentalize music.” Hundt points out that for many working musicians might think of blues as another musical form or genre, but that anybody that’s heard good blues knows it’s more than that. “It makes people dance,” he says, “and the blues gives people what they didn’t know they wanted.”
Being a one-man band and walking the line between being a professional, an artist, and an entertainer has pushed Hundt to be more open-minded.
“I’m more open to different forms and textures now,” he says, “and I’m more confident in my playing, writing, singing, and performing.” Hundt says. “I’m always trying to improve my musicianship and playing the best that I can,” he says, “and I’m looking forward to the next phase,” which for Hundt will include producing new projects for others, performing pretty regularly, and making new albums.
We’re the beneficiaries of Hundt’s commitment to juggling these parts of his life and staying in the groove, for his new album, his tight playing, his storytelling in his songs, his blues growl, and his knack for production provide us with tunes to which we can dance, sing, groove, mourn, and celebrate. Although Hundt admits that “the less he thinks about it, the better it goes” when he tells people how he gets through his one-man act, it’s pretty clear that Hundt’s thoughtful attention to making soulful music that speaks to us insures he’ll continue to succeed in walking the line between being an artist whose music touches people and a professional who brings audiences the sound and meaning they didn’t know they were looking to find.
“The one-man band is a really good summation of who I am right now,” says Hundt. “My life is a balancing act; I work a day gig for 40 hours a week, have a wife and three children, and still play regular gigs and record.”
Visit Gerry’s website at http://steadygroove.com/
Journalist Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. writes about music and music books for No Depression, American Songwriter, Country Standard Time, and Wide Open Country.