Gazing across Durham Bulls Athletic Park from a bar's back patio on a balmy spring afternoon, Wylie Hunter recalls seeing Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp on the ball field below. On that day in late July 2009, he turned 22.
Dylan, he assures, was terrific; if you aspire to be a great American songwriter, which Hunter clearly does, it's generally a given you'll hold Dylan in high regard. He's not so sure about Mellencamp; something about The Coug's body of work is harder to buy into, Hunter says, revealing a healthy degree of discernment. Some of his buddies thought Nelson mostly phoned in his performance, but Wylie's inclined to cut him some slack: The opportunities to see a living legend of American music are quickly diminishing, and to this 24-year-old, history means a lot.
That much is clear from the music the Chapel Hill frontman has made with his band, the Cazadores, on their new album, Someone You Used to Know. I tell Hunter that his twentysomething bandmates reach well beyond their years, deep into classic rock. Half-jokingly, I wonder why they don't sound more like their peers.
"We're trying, man! It doesn't sound indie-rock?" he whines with mock indignation. "The whole thing about rock 'n' roll, and about folk, and about country, and all of it, is that it's tradition. We still are very much rooted in the tradition of rock 'n' roll. And one of the great traditions of rock 'n' roll is showing your influences—not hiding them. I know where all the bands that I love come from, and that's what I like about rock 'n' roll."
Hunter's thoughts actually echo Bruce Springsteen's recent keynote speech at South by Southwest. In Austin, Bruce strummed a few chords from The Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and confessed, "That's every song I ever wrote, right there."
Fittingly, The Boss is probably the major artist to whom Wylie Hunter & the Cazadores have most often been compared. A humble, young four-piece can't really live up to E Street bombast, but you can hear an underlying kinship in the spirit of the Cazadores' music. There are other old-school reference points as well: When guitarist William Taylor performed at a monthly series last summer with his other band, Skylar Gudasz & the Ugly Girls, his counterpoint to Gudasz's renditions of songs by more modern artists such as Neko Case and Gillian Welch was to devote his lead-vocal turns to covers of Paul Simon and Roy Orbison.
As a lyricist, Hunter favors a direct approach. Despite his aforementioned appreciation of Dylan, he's not inclined toward the word-heavy imagery of Blonde on Blonde-era Bob. "I just try to write songs that will really carry the point across," he says. "In a song, you only have a limited amount of time—unless you want to write 7-to-9-minute songs, which is cool, but it hasn't really interested me. I guess I think of myself as more of a [Tom] Petty-ish songwriter—somebody who says a lot with very few words."
The songs on Someone You Used to Know mostly bear that out: Hunter writes forcefully and sings passionately, as he did on the band's eyebrow-raising debut EP of 2010. They've broadened their palette this time around, settling into an alluring groove on "Timebomb" and beaming with a mischievous grin on "Tattoo'd Girls." The sweeter tones of Hunter's voice shine on "Child of the Summer," a natural extension of the debut disc's "A Lot Like Summertime."
Hunter chuckles at being busted for revisiting the seasonal theme. "We have not played them in the same set thus far," he admits. "I genuinely am a child of the summer. I don't function properly in the wintertime. And so, when it comes down to it, that's just a natural theme for me to write about."
The vernal equinox having been reached, it's full speed ahead to the solstice for Hunter and the Cazadores. Perhaps we'll see them on the grass at DBAP some sunny July day down the road.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Boys of summer."