Mother’s Day morning, bluesman Big Ron Hunter leaves his Winston-Salem home in sweatshorts, a button-down pinstripe shirt and a backwards baseball cap on a mission to secure fried chicken for an extended family gathering. Then he gets a call.
He’s set to perform at Muddy Creek Music Hall in an hour, and he does, chuckling to the heavens at his near gaffe, giddy with the unbridled bliss he excavates between guitar strings.
“I used to play here, run around as a little kid when this used to be an old mill,” Hunter says of Muddy Creek. “My friend, he used to be the mayor here, lived right back here — Tommy P. Roth. We used to play in the same band. I used to come to his house in the sixth grade. Used to go to Rural Hall Elementary up there.”
Born to a sharecropping tobacco farmer and a mother who cleaned houses, the blues singer and guitarist came of age in a home between Oak Street and now-extinct 10 ½ Street, near the modern-day bus station, where his guitar-playing cousins Liddy and Bo Peep piqued his interest in music.
“They used to leave the guitars layin’ on the bed and my mama and my aunt would teach me to pray… and I’d reach up on top of the bed to touch those guitars. They’d say, ‘Ronnie, get yo’ hands off of them guitars and pray!’”
A second-place win at the 4H Club for a rendition of “Shake it Up, Baby” at age 8 set him on his path. Years later he’s a member of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization that supports traditional blues musicians, and still finds himself performing in theaters across France, often with close friend and renowned jazz saxophonist Raphaël Imbert. He’s graced stages at the Lincoln Center and the New Orleans Jazz Festival, too.
“I like writing about my upbringing, about how my folks taught me what to do and act right when I grow up,” Hunter says. “The way the South was… I’ve grown to laugh at the things that happened, but it really wasn’t funny. They was hanging black folks down there and that’s the truth. Now they shootin’ us.”
“I’m a firm believer in God and one thing about believin’ in God is you have no fear,” he continues. “Fear holds people back, keeps people in the house, keeps people from lovin’ other people — that’s what fear does. And it causes prejudice.”
Hunter isn’t as interested in the politics of race as he is in telling the stories of his kin or in cultivating authentic connections with any soul willing to stop for conversation. His comfort with vulnerability on stage took decades to develop, though; he says after years of aiming to mimic titans like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix and James Brown, it eventually dawned on him that showing up as himself unapologetically nurtured better writing, more dynamic performances and transformational joy.
Learn more about Big Ron Hunter on Facebook and listen to his latest music at bigronhunter.bandcamp.com. He performs at the Carolina Blues Festival in Greensboro this Saturday.
“Everyone calls me the happiest blues man,” Hunter says. “I like the opportunity to tell people the true parts about life, the goodness about life in the songwriting and conversations from the stage.”
Whether he knows it or not, Hunter is a storyteller first and a musician second. The music is simply his channel, another language to tell tales of the heart and the everyday stories behind his smile. He’s not the first or the last bluesman to mine personal pains for universal meaning, but what makes him distinct are his sunny twists on the blues and his infectious, undying delight in living through another day.