Click here to watch a video of Charlie playing his Jeff Traugott seven-string at the 2010 Montreal Guitar Show.
Charlie Hunter is the kind of musician you continue to visit to keep you honest. While the rest of us occasionally get distracted by the razzle-dazzle of virtuosity and tricks, Hunter continues his steadfast soulful journey. He has a knack for making use of the stuff that’s available to all of us to make good art. Why hasn’t everybody mined Tuck Andress, Muddy Waters, and Wes Montgomery and assembled something cool with it? His influences are diverse but the common thread in his music is blues, groove, and soul. It’s in everything he plays. Whether he’s performing solo counterpoint with himself, or working in group projects, Hunter plays to the beat of the human heart.

His latest album is a collection of songs all in the public domain, which is music that is freely available to the public. It’s calledPublic Domain, and the entire project was recorded live in the studio without editing. Imagine what it would be like to have Charlie Hunter sitting in your living room performing songs like, “Ain’t We Got Fun,” “Meet Me In St. Louis,” and “Limehouse Blues.” It’s a cozy record with an intimate vibe, but pops with the artistry that comes from a guy who knows what to do with a seven string guitar. I caught up with Hunter on a day off from touring and he had this to share.

What gave you the idea for the new record?

I wanted to do a solo thing for a while, and I was talking with my grandfather about those old songs. Then it dawned on me that it would be a cool thing to do all these public domain songs from back in his time. He was born in 1911. When he was a kid he remembers that song “How You Gonna Keep ’em Down On The Farm.” He specifically remembers that being around when the soldiers came back home from World War I. [Laughing] Pretty intense.

Now that’s what I call childhood memories.

Exactly. So much of it is about his recollection, so we sat down and picked out all these public domain tunes. I went online and got the original sheet music which would be how those guys made their money back in the day a hundred years ago. That was an interesting education, too. We picked out about fifty songs together, then I whittled it down to what made it on to the record. I tried to do some interesting things with them in terms of treatment.

Your interpretations sound honest. You really made those songs your own.

Thanks. That was the idea. I spent a lot of time every day playing drums to really understand how the groove really functions. I try to bring that to my instrument. That’s what the solo thing was about—are the drums being represented enough here.

You mean the percussive way in which you attack the strings?

Not just that, but also the time and the pocket. There should be a pocket to all of those songs. It should have a groove that’s always there and the groove is paramount. Everything needs to be sublimated for the groove.

Did you play to a click track?

No, I didn’t. Unlike most people, I enjoy playing with a click. I practice with a drum machine or a metronome. I spent so much time dealing with the finer points of time and feel. Playing behind the beat, playing ahead, but always having that forward motion and always having that intensity of the groove. I think like a drummer when I’m playing my instrument. That’s the thing, you want to think like that because that’s what holds the music together. Music without a pocket and time is just not very alluring.

Do you think guitar players would be better guitarists if they played drums?

Oh yeah. I think that it’s an almost absolute necessity. If a guitar player came up to me and said, “I want to learn what you do.” I would say, “Ok, you are not going to play guitar for at least a year. You are not going to touch it. You are going to play drums. [Laughing] And then when you come back, you will automatically go to the 90th percentile of good guitar players because you’ll actually be a bonus to people on stage, rather than just kind of there making sounds.”

It’s true. Most guitar players are making sounds on top of the rhythm section instead of being part of it.

That’s ok if the music that they’re doing isn’t about that. We were listening to some Van Halen the other day and going, “Wow, his rhythm playing is great, but the band is not able to actually play rhythm with him and they don’t sound so good.” Then he starts doing solos and it just all goes out the window. It’s like wow, I can’t even really listen to this. It’s so all over the place.

Then we put on ZZ Top and it was just like a breath of fresh air. These guys play time beautifully. Same with AC/DC. For these guys I have the utmost respect. It may seem strange for a guy like me who plays the kind of music that I play, but I find that to be so much more gratifying to listen to than a lot of jazz stuff today. Reverence for the pocket, groove, time, and soul you can’t really learn in school. You have to learn by learning them yourself.

On Public Domain not only is your playing different, but the overall sound is different. It’s a very intimate sounding record.

I just used a couple of mics, a guitar amp, a bass amp, and that’s it. It was in a small drum room so we put a room mic in there and that was it. I wanted warts and all. I feel like the pocket is good on all the tunes. There’s a few tunes where it speeds up a click or two, but I’m a human being. You get excited about things and you make little nanosecond changes and things happen. The entire recording session took about four hours. I spend a lot of time trying to be good at my instrument so when I go into the studio I don’t have to spend a lot of hours in there. It’s all about playing the songs you write.