Album Review: Kelly Hunt’s New Release ‘Ozark Symphony’
UPDATED: October 13, 2023
UPDATED: October 13, 2023
Album Release Date: Oct. 13, 2023

Label: Compass Records

Ozark Symphony Will Have You Paddling TOWARDS the Banjo Music

Earlier this week, I found myself mindlessly diving into the depths of the internet to catch up on the upcoming albums for this month. That’s when I stumbled upon Ozark Symphony by Kelly Hunt. Until that moment, Kelly Hunt was entirely off my radar. Naturally, to prep for the release of Ozark Symphony, I embarked on a deep dive into Kelly’s background, her tour schedule, and her 2019 debut album, Even the Sparrow. If you haven’t heard of her either, well, don’t feel alone – her Spotify monthly listeners count had me doubting if I had the right Kelly Hunt. That alone is an injustice to Roots Music. She practically embodies the genre. With the release of Ozark Symphony, I suspect that to change overnight.

Born in Memphis, TN and now based in Kansas City, Kelly Hunt leaves me utterly captivated. Her entire essence intrigues me. Armed with a tenor banjo as her unconventional instrument of choice, she strums and fingerpicks with a distinctive hybrid style. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before. Hunt occupies a musical space somewhere between old-time Appalachian and Irish Folk music. Depending on which spirit she’s channeling, her voice follows suit. At times, she transports me straight to The Shire, while at other times, I catch influences of Gillian Welch or Rhiannon Giddens as she masterfully belts and yodels the high Appalachian hymns. It’s not just in her playing; her lyrics are intricate and beautiful, akin to the words of someone who has witnessed a century of change.

Ozark Symphony was produced by Dirk Powell at his Cypress House studio in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. It’s safe to say that Powell was the perfect choice for this project, given his renowned expertise in Celtic, Cajun, and old-time music. The songs are meticulously arranged, following a brilliant “less-is-more” approach, which preserves the album’s authenticity by primarily utilizing acoustic instruments. The title track, Ozark Symphony, maintains a raw, unpolished mix that enhances its authenticity. It features dual banjos, one strumming alongside dynamic percussion, driving the beat forward. A haunting cello adds depth and emotion to Kelly Hunt’s journey through the Ozarks.

Then comes You Make Me High, a whimsical love song that will leave you grinning and two-stepping with your significant other. The banjo melody is infectiously catchy and will keep “rolling” through your mind for days. On the Bayou stands out as slightly more produced than the rest of the album, accentuating Hunt’s longing, and sultry voice. Despite the inclusion of the Cajun squeezebox, the song leans closer to a country tune, perhaps due to the departure from Hunt’s signature banjo sound. On the Bayou was released as a single, accompanied by an aesthetically pleasing music video.

In Everybody Knows Hunt demonstrates her vocal versatility, seamlessly switching between different emotional gears. The instrumentation complements her voice, perfectly conveying the underlying angst, which sometimes borders on anger. She openly expresses her emotions for all to see. Evangeline is an adaptation of Longfellow’s 1847 poem, Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie. Hunt’s modern interpretation’ is nothing short of brilliant. I know this…..because I had to Google it just to understand…

Dirk Powell showcases his impressive mandolin skills and contributes vocal harmonies, adding depth to the melancholic What About Now? The banjo rolls cascade up and down beautifully following the percussion in Top of the World. The music feels like a tide washing over you, evoking a sense of being in tune with the melody. Lost Highway follows in the same vein, making it impossible not to tap your foot and sway to the beat.

Hunt’s versatility shines once more in Take Me Back to Memphis. This track introduces us to a strategic brass section designed to transport us back to the days of Memphis Swing.  My Own Civil War is a testament to Hunt’s songwriting prowess as she delivers passionately written folktale. Richard Thompson would be proud. Be Still masterfully balances instrumentation, voice, and subject matter. The haunting atmosphere is a fitting backdrop for Hunt’s vocal acrobatics, especially in the high notes, before the violin cries us home.

Over the Mountain serves as a fitting bookend for this album and perhaps one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It evokes the spirit of an old church hymnal, with impeccable and stunning harmonies assisted by Sermanni and Amelia Powell. The a capella tune pleasantly eases our senses to rest after the joy ride that is Ozark Symphony.

Final Thoughts

Kelly Hunt has conducted an Ozark Symphony of pure banjo bliss.

Considering I just introduced myself to the music of Kelly Hunt, she seized the moment, demanded my attention, and did not disappoint. Ozark Symphony fires on every cylinder delivering a breath of fresh air to Americana music, Roots music, or whatever the industry snobs prefer to call it. Ozark Symphony is a literal masterclass in how Roots music should be handled. My hat is off to Dirk Powell and his production team. The melodies on this album are entrancing and welcoming like an aromatic windowsill pie. Each song is arranged deliberately, simple, and stripped down unless otherwise needed. He gave Kelly Hunt the space she needed to let her voice and her work speak for itself.  Ozark Symphony should be the standard artist aspire to.

Favorite Track: You Make Me High, Top of the World

RootsnRevelry Grade:                           

Follow Kelly Hunt

You may also be interested in this incredible performance by father-daughter duo Dirk and Amelia Powell:

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