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Playing his heart out
Local celebrity James Hunnicutt abandons convention, becoming full-time musician and finds the meaning of success.
Talk to just about anyone in Kitsap’s rock and roll scene, mention the name James Hunnicutt, and nine times out of 10 whomever it is will know of either the man, the myth or the legend.
At the very least, they’ll know the name.
Hunnicutt, 34, has been rocking in and out of this county, across the state, up and down the coast and all across musical genres for the better part of the past two decades — a number which is a bit surprising.
By the baby face, you’d think he wasn’t much more than two decades old.
Then you see his chops — at a solo show, or with his rock-a-billy quartet James Hunnicutt and the Revolvers, or with local punkers Neutralboy, a band he was called upon by earlier this summer — and it’s easy to appreciate his years and years of devotion.
Hunnicutt counted right around two dozen bands he’s been in (including the groups he’s sat in with here and there) since his first junior high school band in 1987. What’s more, is the diversity of those 20-plus bands, and the equally diverse roles which Hunnicutt has played in each.
He’s been everything from a crooning, six-string-slingin’ front man in JHATRS to a psychobilly zombie drummer with the Hatchetwounds to screaming loud punk rock lead guitar in the Swinos and Neutralboy. He’s even lead singer of a local Misfits tribute called Devilock — essentially “all the basic rock instruments,” Hunnicut said.
“I was a balanced kid until I started playing guitar,” he noted, recalling years of playing baseball and drawing and running around outdoors. “When I started playing guitar, it just took over.”
ROCK AND ROLL
“I don’t drink anymore, I don’t do drugs,” Hunnicutt said, talking with What’s Up in the front parking lot of Winterland before a recent Neutralboy show. “This is how I get my fix anymore... music is 24/7 for me.”
An independent, fairly DIY local musician, Hunnicutt, 34, has yet to make it ‘big,’ or tour the world. But just this past year, after many years of working day jobs, making music on the side, he took a leap of faith, becoming a full-time musician by his own discretion.
He retired from his job at the Bremerton shipyard in 2007, and marking a full year as a full-time musician this month, he’s since been battling to stay financially afloat doing what he loves to do.
It’s been a rough go, he noted, but his friends’, family and fans’ support has helped him.
Independent musicians and bands playing the local bar and club circuit can only expect a couple hundred dollars tops, per show (if that), depending on the number of bands playing that night and the fickle number of folks who come out in support. Factor in the cost of getting the band and the gear to the venue, split the pay between a few members, and the income figures start to get a bit dicey.
As a working musician, Hunnicutt has augmented that revenue by teaching guitar lessons and playing more solo shows when the bands have off nights. But it’s still proving to be a difficult way to make a living.
“It’s been tough,” he said, noting that he’s had to move in with his folks temporarily, and he’s basically living broke.
But he’s got no regrets, after all, he’s happy.
What he might regret, he said, would be looking back after a life spent living safe and comfortable in a nine-to-five and wondering what if — what might’ve happened.
“To me, success is relative too, it’s not like there’s this certain place,” Hunnicutt said. “To me, just being happy is a big part of being successful.”
And there are few places, Hunnicutt added, where he is happier than on stage, playing his heart out, sharing music with people.
“Playing music for people is like the ultimate rush,” he noted. “I think Nancy Wilson said, it’s like having sex with everyone in the crowd — and I can understand that. Not in a physical sense, but you can feel that energy between you and the crowd.”
Nowhere is that theoretical orgy more intimate or intense than when playing solo, Hunnicutt said, which he has been known to do.
He picked up the guitar more than 20 years ago on the influence of bands like Metallica and Motorhead. He’s got a picture of himself, having a beer with the guitargod Lemmy in from his former drunken years. But over the years Hunnicutt noted he’s developed tastes for all kinds of music.
On nights when he’s not pumping out rockabilly with the Revolvers or high-powered punk with Neutralboy, Hunnicutt will play solo, just he, his guitar and his velvet voice, crooning old school cover songs — from cats like Elvis, Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash — that he remembers his dad playing during the time he was growing up.
“It’s kind of come full circle — the stuff that I’m into now is the stuff that I grew up on,” Hunnicutt said of the rockabilly, adding “I’m more obsessed now than when I first started, I think I’m more inspired too.”
On that note, earlier this month, the Revolvers returned from their first ever West Coast tour, which Hunnicutt noted as the best tour he’s ever been on given that the band made it back without having to sell any guitars on eBay for gas money.
He even had a little extra change in his pocket. And though he might be at the bottom of the food chain in a capitalist society as a self-made professional musician, he feels, both personally and musically, he’s at the top of his game.
And after all, the best songs are often born of heartache.
GRAY BOX / ITALIX
Catch James Hunnicutt solo at the Manette Saloon Aug. 27 and every fourth Wednesday of the month. Or see James with Neutralboy at record release shows in Seattle — Aug. 30 at the Jules Maes Saloon and Aug. 31 at the Funhouse.
Also check out two new records — “Bad Girl” the newest CD from James Hunnicutt and the Revolvers and “Your Friends Suck,” a new 7-inch vinyl from Neutralboy.
Info: www.jameshunnicutt.com, www.jameshunnicuttand