Original Fuzz Magazine contributor Jonathan Price, a talented wordsmith and photographer hailing from North Carolina, had the privilege of talking with Nashville bluesman Patrick Sweany a few weeks back after his show in the loose hours of the morning. Buzz on in and find a wall to join the conversation below.
By Jonathan Price
It’s 1:45am on a cold October night as Patrick Sweany sits down across the table in a cramped hotel room. He had just finished performing a sizzling two-hour set at Asheville’s notorious Grey Eagle. Although it was only the first night of the tour, he looked tired. Nonetheless, he seemed eager to captivate an audience, and to tell his story.
“My dad was into folk music—he was in the church band,” Sweany said. “He had a lot of Pete Seeger records, Gordon Lightfoot, Dave Van Ronk—ya know—white folk revival guys who were really into ragtime and blues. I gravitated towards those records because I had easy access to them.”
In Massillon, Ohio, where Sweany was born and raised, there wasn’t much of a music scene, leaving Sweany to travel to Columbus or Akron to connect with other people who appreciated folk music.
“My dad started taking me to the Kent State Folk Festival, which is where I eventually went to college because I knew there were guitar players around,” Sweany said. “We would sit in and watch these mini-concerts take place in conference rooms in the student center, and once I felt confident enough with my musical abilities, I would start sitting in with the performers and playing a little bit here-and-there.”
Although folk music has always had a particular hold over Sweany’s songwriting, blues music would eventually transform him as a young musician. Sweany mentioned the time he first remembers being captivated by blues as a kid.
“There were guys there playing country blues that you just didn’t really hear anymore,” Sweany said. “I decided that was what I wanted to do with my life.”
The blues influences would multiply as Sweany began to dig deeper, buying as many records as he could get his hands on.
“Most of my early musical life was spent playing unamplified blues stuff,” Sweany said. “Piedmont stuff. Delta stuff. Stuff like Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry, and Brian McGhee, and even older guys like Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, and then I got into jug band music.”
Of course, Sweany couldn’t stay in Massillon for long, moving to Kent, Ohio in the early 90’s to attend Kent State as an English Literature major, trying to find work as a musician at night.
“So I went to Kent State but I never really had a plan to use my education, or how to apply it,” Sweany said. “I was picking up coffee house gigs and restaurant gigs here-and-there, making, for a 20-year-old, all the money in the world at the time.”
He paused briefly during the interview because we both know what question is coming; is this how you met Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys?
Sweany grinned and said, “Well his dad, Chuck, had seen me playing around Akron and told me about his son who was really into Hound Dog Taylor.” He continued, saying “Then Dan started coming around, and we would sit in with each other, but we were never really all that close.”
However, their working relationship would last for the next few years, as Auerbach would later record Sweany’s keystone album, Every Hour Is A Dollar Gone.
“He was getting into record production at the time, and he really wanted to record us, so we made Every Hour in his house,” Sweany said. “I think this was around the time Rubber Factory was out, so they (The Black Keys) were really starting to be considered a success. He engineered and produced that. Recorded it in 2006, it came out in 2007. But after that, they were living different lives of the rich and famous, so there wasn’t really a relationship beyond that.”
By Dave Creaney
After several years of touring and recording, Sweany packed up, and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he would fight to have his musical voice heard. However, it turned out things wouldn’t be that easy for him in Music City.
“Originally, it was one of the hardest times financially I’ve ever had. Once Nashville exploded around 2011, people began to move in, and I began to know “people” and was recognized by the community,” Sweany said. “It took three years to really get a gig in town. The best of the best are there, so it takes a lot of time and energy to make a name for yourself.”
Living in Nashville turned out to be a great move for Sweany— being one of the few working musicians in town who specializes in country blues and ‘old time’ roots music.
“The one part about me being who I am, the music I do—there’s really no one else doing what I do in Nashville, anyway,” Sweany said. “I can’t go see an authentic blues band at all in Nashville. I just don’t sweat any of that anymore, because I do what I do, and I mean, I feel like people really respect it.”
Things weren’t always so easy for Sweany as a newcomer to the Nashville music scene, as he described how he stuck with his inner-voice for his artistic integrity.
“When I got there (Nashville), I was really intimidated because everyone else seemed like they were so much better at all these other things,” Sweany said. “But what they can’t do is write Patrick Sweany songs. They can’t play my weird songs with country blues guitar picking, and that whole archaic box that I fit into, so I just don’t worry about it. I don’t have anything to prove to anybody in town—I just do that one little narrow thing really well.”
Recently, Sweany ventured out of the Nashville recording scene to work on his next album at the world-famous Sam Phillips Studios, in Memphis, Tennessee. He seemed excited and eager to talk about the yet-to-be-named project, which features many notable musicians and studio engineers.
“We worked out of a place built by Sam Phillips called ‘Phillips Recording’ with the money he made from selling Elvis Presley’s recording contract at RCA,” Sweany said. “It’s been a working studio since 1960—I mean they recorded ‘Wully Bully’ there, just tons of stuff. I know John Prine’s ‘Pink Cadillac’ was recorded there all sorts of shit all through the 60s, 70s, 80s. Now, Matt (Ross-Spang) has been working with the Phillips family, and it’s an amazing room to work in. All of Jerry Lee Lewis’s country-ish stuff was done there. The piano is even still in the same place it was 50 years ago. It’s just incredible.”
The crew working on Sweany’s newest project is just as esteemed as the historic studio they were working out of, some of them even Grammy award-winning.
“The guy I wanted to work with, Matt Ross-Spang who is a Grammy award-winning sound engineer, has this Sam Phillips kind of ‘perfect imperfections’ kind-of style that he engineers with that I really wanted this record to feel like,” Sweany said. “Dave Cobb, the producer is Matt’s go-to guy. They have this thing going on that you want your record to sound like.”
We wrapped up our conversation by talking about him performing at the hallowed ground of rock & roll—the sacred and humble Sun Studios. The very room Elvis had recorded his first songs, where countless other early rock & roll stars had made their mark. Sweany became very reverent.
“There was a CBS special program called ‘The Sun Sessions’ and we did one where my band went down there and they recorded us and filmed us playing our songs in the same room that Elvis, Jimmy Reed, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison played in,” Sweany said. “I was so nervous. So nervous. Now you’re in the church, and the vibe is definitely there, and you want to be respectful and perform well.”
According to Sweany, the album will be another year in the works, but “by design, be a very, very greasy, groovy record.”
Words by Jonathan Price.
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