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'Incompetent' railway man but ace guitarist

After 20 years, James Hunter pleased 'People Gonna Talk'

By Todd Leopold
CNN

Hunter
"It took me 20 years to become an overnight sensation," James Hunter chuckles of his newfound success.

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(CNN) -- James Hunter may owe his career in music to railroads.

In 1979, when Hunter was a teenager, he got a job as a lock fitter -- an employee in charge of a Victorian-era safety feature found in signal boxes -- for the railroad in his native Colchester, England. He was terrible at it.

"I was the most recent hire and the most incompetent they ever had," he says in a phone interview from a tour stop in San Francisco, California. "I was a sight to behold."

He did the job for seven years -- though his work just as often involved digging holes, probably to get him away from the signal boxes, he chuckles.

Fortunately for Hunter, he had a talent for playing guitar, which he would indulge during his off-hours.

"I was doing it mostly for fun," he says. "It was never with the view of making a living at it."

In 1986, disenchanted with the railroad life, he put together a band to play clubs. Three years later he met Van Morrison, who eventually employed him for occasional concerts and studio work.

By 1996 he'd put out his first solo album, "Believe What I Say," which was followed by 2001's "Kick It Around." Earlier this year, Hunter released "People Gonna Talk" (GO Records/Rounder), which finally has people talking about him.

He's garnered appearances on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and "The Tonight Show" and was recently nominated for an Americana Music Association award in the "new/emerging artist" category.

Hunter, 43, laughs about the sudden attention.

"It took 20 years for me to become an overnight sensation," he says.

Blaming his brother

Hunter and "People Gonna Talk" have earned raves from publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Mojo magazine, praising Hunter's economical guitar work, early-'60s R&B groove and Sam Cooke-like vocals.

His old employer, Morrison, also has chimed in, saying, "James is one of the best voices, and best kept secrets, in British R&B and soul. Check him out."

Hunter and his band -- saxophonists Damian Hand and Lee Badau, bassist Jason Wilson and drummer Jonathan Lee -- recorded the album in the old-fashioned way, live in the studio, which Hunter believes gave the album an added spark.

"I do regret taking so long in getting around to it [recording live]," he says. "But some of the record companies didn't take [that style] too seriously." He says he understands why, observing that the studio is often a place for musicians to lose themselves and become perfectionists: "When you've got the leisure to put down one track at a time," he says, it's easy to do so.

Hunter came by his R&B influences early. He says the guitar was "me brother's fault -- when he was about 14, he bought one, so I got a friend to sell me his old one for two quid," he recalls in a just-blokes accent. Eventually, he had a "chance encounter with a Jackie Wilson record," and that was that.

"I did like the [Sex] Pistols and the Clash and all that," he says, "but for the most part I liked early black music from the period before it turned into soul music."

'I knew people would go for it'

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Hunter's heroes include artists such as Lowman Paulingexternal link (the "5" Royales guitarist who wrote "Dedicated to the One I Love," James Brown's "Think" and Ray Charles' "Tell the Truth") and Arthur Alexanderexternal link (the R&B singer and songwriter best-known for writing "Anna" and "Soldier of Love," covered by the Beatles), not exactly household names nowadays.

Hunter acknowledges difficulty in finding an audience for his songs -- or having the audience find him.

"I think the main [difficulty] is getting people to hear it," he says.

But he was confident he would break through, and stuck to his style. "I knew people would go for it if they heard it," he says. "I've been told the party line, but when you do that [change to please others], the desperation and effort shows."

Hunter's touring the United States with Boz Scaggs, a jaunt that will run through August 20. He's enjoying the travel, hoping to visit the last remaining Royale, Jimmy Moore, and soak up the city scenes (which include Los Angeles, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).

It's all a long way from being an "incompetent" railway worker. In fact, Hunter says, about the hardest thing he does nowadays is write songs, an endeavor he compares to "pulling teeth."

"My songs tend to be verbose," he says, noting that it takes time to find the precise words for what he's trying to express. "But when I'm writing a song, I'm getting to know ... what I'm talking about."

Still, even that has its upside. Getting the lyrics right is important, but it's the groove that really matters.

"In real terms, all what you're really worried about [is the hook]," he says. "Nobody really cares what babalu-bam-boom means."

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