Hunter Park is finding her way.
She lives with her beloved grandmother, Patricia Smith, who she calls “mom,” and great aunt Fern Tuten. They occupy a little white house in the middle of nowhere, on family land near Jacksonboro. Nearby is blind Uncle Parker Tuten, who lost an arm in a youthful accident.
"It’s very swamp-witch,” she said. “It’s my aesthetic.”
Park comes from a big Southern family, but her birth parents both are gone now. She struggled through her adolescence, attending Porter-Gaud. “It was a great education, but I hated it,” she said. She was misunderstood, rejected, the subject of patronizing talk.
But she found music and, along with it, a purpose and a safe space to express herself.
Now her band, She Returns From War, is gathering steam and attention. In just a few years, Park went from an open mic to the Spoleto Festival USA finale concert this year at Middleton Place. She’s working on a second album with some well-known local collaborators and planning a new tour.
Park calls her musical style “Cosmic Americana.” She strums an acoustic guitar and sings heartfelt, recondite lyrics, often about love and relationships, while her bandmates provide a swaying, understated, embracing sound — a simple beat, tasteful guitar licks, a rich ambiance.
Her physique belies the gentleness of the music. Park cuts a striking, self-assured, hard-to-miss figure. She’s tall, dresses exuberantly, wears her hair long and dyes the ends blonde. She came out as transgender in high school, which wasn’t easy.
“Nobody knew what that was,” she said. “They tried to be nice but in a very demeaning way.”
Park already was drawn to the stage. She appeared in theater productions and sang in the choir. Charles Carmody, a fellow Porter-Gaud student who now runs the Charleston Music Hall, taught Park how to play guitar.
Starting at about 16 years old, Park began to write songs. She spent summers during her high school years in Nashville “trying to get famous.” She posted ads, threw away some money, met some people who were not always helpful.
“But it was a good experience because I understood what was up from an early age,” she said.
When, after Porter-Gaud, she spent six months at Queens University in Charlotte, Park began to get more serious about music, and when she moved to New York City at the beginning of 2012, she spent another six months searching for opportunities — and landing one or two.
But Park is attached to her hometown and inspired by its vibrant popular music scene, so she soon returned from her northern trials and rejoined a Charleston community that provides a safe and creative niche in which she is happy to put down roots.
“I bloom more when planted,” she said.
Being transgender is a little easier now. Park hates that people still think it’s all so mysterious, or that many turn away in fear or discomfort.
“And I think they sexualize people, which I don’t think is fair,” she said. Being transgender is about identity, not sex. “There is still so much violence and fear and ignorance.” But not so much within Park’s musical and social circles. “I have a great community.”
Her first album, “Oh, What a Love,” came out in September 2015. It was produced and mixed by Don Dixon, featured Dixon on bass and keys, Jesse Ledford on backing vocals, Charlie King on drums and a few other instruments, guest musician Johnny Delaware and several others.
It was a milestone. The record featured clearly structured tunes that easily conform to the current folk-rock aesthetic especially popular in Charleston. After the release, She Returns From War went on a small regional tour, which elevated its profile.
When Park returned from the tour, she moved in temporarily with the parents of a good friend in order to stay close to the city, then relocated to Jacksonboro to stay close to her ailing mom. In the country she experimented with witchcraft as a form of spiritual seeking — nothing crazy, no tarot card reading scams or anything like that. Park merely wanted a quiet healing space, a devotional retreat from the bustle of the music world.
She builds altars, performs some rituals and some divination, she works with crystals and reads cards.
“It’s a healing thing for me, which is cool, against all the stuff. ... It helps me process how cruel and unusual the world can be at times.”
But at other times, the world is full of grace and generosity. When she recently worked with the Charleston County Public Library, officials there gave her a necklace with the phrase “Swamp Witch.” Park was very touched. And when she gathers the band together to learn or record songs, and her musical collaborators become wholly invested in the process, Park knows that she’s among friends.
In the studio
Musician-producer Wolfgang Zimmerman said he loves working with Park and has high hopes for the new album, which “has more teeth on it.”
“Some stuff is really raunchy, dark blues stuff, with some kind of experimentation,” Zimmerman said. “I think it’s going to be a great album.”
He and Park will typically invite a third musician, a multi-instrumentalist, to join them in the studio on days meant for working through new songs. Park will play the guitar and sing through the tunes, then the team will start adding and subtracting, experimenting with sounds and styles and building instrumental layers.
“The thing I love about working with Hunter the most is, some people feel like they have to suffer in the studio, but she strives to have fun,” Zimmerman said. “I believe in Hunter the musician, but I really believe in Hunter the person, and the soul inside.”
Many in the trans community cope with violence and suicide, Zimmerman said, but Park channels her emotions into her music and turns them into something positive.
“She’s a total hero in my mind,” he said.
Early in the process of recording the new album, a song began to come together nicely. When Zimmerman turned his attention from the equipment to the couch, he noticed Park sitting there, crying.
“This is all I ever wanted,” Park said through her tears.
One way Park cultivates so many musical relationships is through a persistent dedication to hearing other bands perform. She is often out and about, soaking up what others have to offer.
“She comes to my shows all the time,” said Jordan Igoe. The first time was four or five years ago, and Park quickly introduced herself to Igoe. Soon they played a gig together, then they started hanging out.
Park has learned so much so quickly, Igoe said. “She’s definitely grown a lot in her songwriting, and getting the right people to play with, which is what everyone tries to do, but she does it faster.”
One of the things Park learned from Igoe was honesty. Songs have to be truthful to work.
“That’s a huge thing she focuses on, the cathartic, therapeutic part of it, but pairing it with raw honesty,” Igoe said. “That speaks to a lot of people, the realness of her music, and the way she expresses emotion on stage.”
Patrick Morris, a drummer and singer in The MoBros duo, returned with his brother Kelly to Charleston a year ago, after a few years living in Chicago and making a record. Morris said he was already familiar with Park’s music when he first met her through other artists.
“She’s a great songwriter,” he said. “I love her style, her turn of phrase, it’s very poetic, true, very honest.”
Part of the scene
Park’s influences are many, but she loves Graham Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and she’s a big fan of Shovels & Rope, both because of the duo’s music and because of their commitment to Charleston and to cultivating a robust music scene here.
Increasingly, musicians are making Charleston their base of operations, largely because the city now has several good smaller venues and a thriving collaborative community, Park said. That cross-pollination, along with recording and touring opportunities, are helping to propel the local scene to the next level, she said.
Now, Park is working on a new album she’s calling “Psychic Voyage of the Mirrored Moon Dance Hall.” A single, “Fruit of the Night,” already is available. Zimmerman is engineering the album. Park expects to have it finished in July. She’s working with a bigger band this time: Camille Rhoden on keys, Caleb Bodtorf on guitar, Kelly Morris on bass, J.P. Chapa on drums, as well as special guests such as Jessa Desmond and Corey Campbell of SUSTO, Clay Houle of The Artisinals, Christian Chidester of Brave Baby, and Tyler Morris of ET Anderson.
It’s an exciting time for Park, for her band She Returns From War, for her city and for the flowering music scene.
“I’ve been here since birth,” she said. “I’ve seen (the music scene) grow and change, and I want to be part of it as much as I can.”