James Hunter’s working-class past informs present 

click to enlarge James Hunter is in the U.S. promoting his new album “Minute by Minute.” - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • James Hunter is in the U.S. promoting his new album “Minute by Minute.”

James Hunter, a Colchester-bred Brit, celebrates his working-class past. After playing the pub circuit for years, then almost giving up on music entirely, the gravelly blues growler finally earned a Grammy nomination at 43 for his 2006 “People Gonna Talk” breakthrough.

But he laughs about the day jobs he took along the way, like rail-line signal locking fitter, where he was nearly crushed by falling steel girders. “Another time, I stepped out from behind the signal box and a train just missed me,” he says. “I’ve had a few near-misses, so I’m actually quite lucky to be here.”

What, exactly, did a fitter do? “I’ll put it in layman’s terms,” says the 50-year-old, who plays The City this weekend backing “Minute by Minute,” his first new album in five years as The James Hunter Six.

Along England’s overground tracks, he says, “it’s all Victorian, Industrial Revolution technology, and it was still operating in the mid-’80s when I was working on it. You pull a handle that sends a semaphore signal to the train to go, with the locking system directly underneath the signalman’s platform, connected to trays full of little tippets and dogs, they’re called, to stop conflicting signals being pulled against each other.”

Hunter was in awe of the ingenious turn-of-the-century technology, which required no wiring. “But it was also hopelessly complex, and for somebody to just go in there on spec and try and learn how it worked was difficult. And I was just the assistant!” he says.

At night he was honing his R&B guitar chops in Howlin’ Wilf and the Vee-Jays, then later as a solo act. He was befriended by Van Morrison, who invited him to contribute backing vocals on his 1994 concert document and its ’95 studio followup, “Days Like This.” His benefactor, in turn, crooned on Hunter’s 1996 recording “What I Believe.”

“Van and I were introduced to each other by a mutual club-owner friend in South Wales, and I got on quite well with him,” Hunter says. “But Van had several groups of friends — his mystic, Irish-poet friends and then his stupid, teddy-boy friends like me who he could talk about Sam Cooke and Jerry Lee Lewis with.”

Hunter lost his wife, Jacqueline, to cancer two years ago. But a new booster revived his spirits — Daptone Records’ Gabriel Roth, who produced all the “Minute” scorchers live in an American studio.

Hunter says the clucking album opener “Chicken Switch” is not about his scary signal-locking gig. “And a career on the railway isn’t a prerequisite to sing the blues,” he adds. “But it certainly doesn’t hurt!”

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Tom Lanham

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