Seventeen-year-old Helena Hunt is the lanky wisp of a hippie girl with a sweet voice and a penchant for playing the banjo whose steadfast commitment to her own laid-back style made her an instant fan favorite on Lifetime’s new docuseries Chasing Nashville.
“It really just kind of fell in my lap,” Hunt says of her unlikely overnight rise from Clyde, N.C., high-school student to reality TV star. “My chorus teacher was actually contacted by the production company and they just said they were looking for girls my age that could play instruments and sing. She told them about me, and we pretty much immediately started filming. It all happened really fast.”
We caught up with Hunt recently to talk about the show and how she plans to balance both of her dreams for the future.
Channel Guide Magazine: Did you and your family talk it over before you decided to appear on Chasing Nashville, or did you decide right away that it was too good an opportunity to pass up?
Helena Hunt: Actually at first we were very hesitant, because usually reality shows are very staged and we weren’t very sure we wanted to be a part of that. But they informed us that this would actually be more documentary/reality, so it would be more real, so we decided to do it. But it was really stressful at first trying to figure out if I wanted to do it or not, because I was going to miss a lot of school.
CGM: Did you get to meet any of the other girls before you started filming, and have you become friends with any of them in the process?
HH: I didn’t meet the girls until the Hillbilly Days competition. But I’ve become really close with Julia and Autumn, because they’re the ones that I saw the most. We still keep in touch — we text message and stuff — and I actually saw Julia a couple weeks ago, because they came to visit us.
CGM: What are you most excited for people to get to know about you on Chasing Nashville?
HH: I was really excited that people were going to find out that I play the banjo — because not a lot of females play the banjo. And I guess I also wanted people to be able to connect with me, because I’m so awkward and there are lots of girls out there that are really awkward, as well. I always thought that it was a terrible thing, but it’s not really, because apparently a lot of people that are watching the show enjoy watching me. So I want the other awkward girls in the world to know that it’s OK to be different.
CGM: A lot of people think you become a famous singer by going on American Idol or The Voice and bam! You’re famous. Do you think people are going to continue to be surprised at what you and the other girls go through, and how the music business really works?
HH: Yes. I’ve definitely learned that it’s a lot of hard work and a lot more work than I thought it was!
Everything happened so fast, and I learned that I have a lot to work on, because I don’t have a very strong stage presence. And I need to work on writing more songs, because I think that that is a very important part of being a musician is having your own stuff to share. And I also learned that there’s a lot of bad deals in the business and people that try to take advantage of you.
CGM: Keith Thomas seems like a pretty good guy to be your first professional mentor.
HH: I was lucky to be able to work with him because he’s not like most of the others. He wants to help you and when he criticizes you, it’s in a good way, so you know what to work on. I just feel really lucky to have gotten to do that.
CGM: Of all the girls on the show, you seem the most laid back about your musical career. Is that because you don’t want anything to spoil your love of music and making music?
HH: It’s really because before doing all this I wasn’t even really sure if what I wanted to do was have a career in music — because I really love animals and I’d like to be a wildlife biologist. I was wanting to do that more than anything for a while. But after doing all this, I started wanting to do something in music more, so I want to figure out a way to do both of those things. I don’t just want to pick one right now.
CGM: If you could write your own ticket, what would your ideal career look like?
HH: I’d like to move out to Montana and either work at Yellowstone, or there is a place out there called Animals of Montana, where they have lots of wild animals that are all pretty tame and that people can take pictures with and stuff. I’d love to work there and then also have performances on the side. That would be perfect for me.
CGM: If the phone would ring after you’re done doing this interview and it would be someone inviting you to go out on tour as their opening act, who would you like that to be?
HH: Hmmm. That’s a hard one. I need to think about that.
CGM: Here’s an easier one — do we get to see more of you and Zeb?
HH: Yeah, a little bit. Yeah [laughs].
CGM: In the first episode, we found out that you got to sing on stage with Loretta Lynn when you were little. Tell me more about that.
HH: That experience was definitely thrilling, because I wasn’t expecting it to happen in the first place! A friend of ours just had a big mouth and yelled, “I’ve got a little girl down here that can sing Patsy Cline.” And Loretta Lynn just said, “Well bring her on up here!”
It was really so spur of the moment, but the band just happened to play in the perfect key for me to sing. And then I asked them if they had a banjo while I was up there, but they couldn’t get it to work with the sound system.
CGM: How old were you when you decided you wanted to play the banjo?
HH: I was seven when I decided I wanted to learn it and I was eight when I got my first banjo from my grandma. I just always liked the sound of it. Nobody else played it in our family — I just decided to pick it up.
CGM: Do you remember the first song you learned to play?
HH: I believe it was Cripple Creek. You ask anyone who plays the banjo if they know Cripple Creek and they always say yes!
CGM: Whose music are you listening to these days?
HH: I listen to everything! I have a different favorite song every week [her current favorite is Adele’s “Turning Tables”]. I’ve been listening to a lot of Patty Griffin recently.
Actually that’s who I’d love to open for — Patty Griffin!
New episodes of Chasing Nashville air Tuesday nights at 11/10CT on Lifetime.