Kelley Hunt will perform at the McPherson Opera House on Saturday

Opera theater

Musician Kelley Hunt returns to the McPherson Opera House on Saturday June 4 for a performance with her acoustic quartet.

Hunt has refrained from a series of large-scale concerts so far this year, aware that many tours and individual dates are still canceled or postponed due to COVID-19.

But, she adds, the past two years have proven fruitful for her creatively, as she has written a fair amount of new material. She will debut some of those songs at McPherson this weekend.

She recently spoke with KMUW about this upcoming performance, life during lockdown, and her friendship with Kansas music legend Mike Finnigan.

Interview Highlights

Have you ever performed at the McPherson Opera House? I remember going to see [guitarist] Bill Frisell there and just blown away by the play.

I’ve played there over the years. Probably a handful of times. And that’s pretty amazing. Just to have a community of this size, to have a facility like that, is mind blowing.

It’s a hidden gem.

The state of Kansas has several places tucked away like this. I grew up in Emporia, and they have the Granada theater. The McPherson Opera House is so cool: All the… bright red seats. You walk in and you’re like, “Man, here’s a great vibe.”

Let’s talk about the acoustic quartet.

I’ve done 58 full one-hour Facebook gigs in two years. The first ones, I had to do them solo because we really couldn’t be around other people. Then I ended up bringing in an acoustic bass, one of my singers. We put a drum shell between us [and wore] masks. It was really fun. I did it almost every week. It helped me to hear my own songs in a bit of a different way because I write pretty much everything I’ve done.

I wrote a lot during the height of the pandemic and fleshed out the songs in that format. So it’s been fun to go out and do live shows. I just do a handful here and there. I do a lot of piano and a little guitar.

[For the gig in McPherson] I’ll have Jeff Harshbarger on acoustic bass with me; he’s a killer player from Kansas City who also teaches at KU, and Brandon Graves will be playing percussion and a little [drum] case. Then one of my longtime singers, Allena Ross [will be joining us, too]. People will love this woman. She has such a killer voice [and] comes from a genuine evangelical background; his mother was a gospel singer, the real deal. So when she opens her mouth to sing, it’s really cool. It’s really special. It’s a fun group to bring out; they are moving and they are great players.

You mentioned writing and I’m glad to hear you say you write songs. At the height of the pandemic, I spoke to people who seemed to fall into one of two camps: either they weren’t feeling creative at all, or they were like, “Hey, I’ve got all this time me and my guitar, what else am I going to do?”

I think I had a small dose of both because for the first two months I couldn’t write. I was trying to take care of our family and stay safe. There were so many things we didn’t know at the time. I would wake up in the middle of the night, which I had never done before, and I thought, “What is this?” My psyche just wasn’t ready to [go to a place where I could write]. It was very strange, very unusual for me. Then one day, probably May 2020, I started to calm down and started writing again.

We lost a lot of people in the last two years in the music community and one of them was Mike Finnigan, who you worked with a lot. It’s amazing to me how many people he touched in the music world. There are people you wouldn’t necessarily relate it to, and then they say, “Yeah, Mike was the first person who showed me how to tune a guitar” or “Mike helped me figure that out” .

He produced and played on my very first album. We flew to Los Angeles in ’93 and the record came out in ’94. He and his wife, Candy, [were great to us]. Kelly Finnigan [his son of the band Monophonics] was very young at the time, and he would go out in the yard and sing James Brown songs. But Mike, my husband and I went on tour several times to support that first album and Mike came and played on a live album that I did around 2000. We saw each other on the road.

I knew he was not well [before he died] and it opened my heart wide. I hadn’t realized how quickly things had progressed. He had a big effect on a lot of people, both in music and in the recovery world. He was a larger than life personality. He really was.

You’ve written quite a bit over the past few years. Do you also have recording projects in preparation?

I have two or three projects in progress. In reality, [there’s] a lot of the new things we’re going to play at the Opera, in addition to the things people have heard me do in the past. I’m preparing for an album of all the new stuff. I’m actually going to release a holiday album later this year. I’m excited about it all. It will be fun to road test some of these new songs.