Start talking about blues and soul-shaded rust belt rock from Ohio, and people may assume you mean the Black Keys. Except that’s also the longtime musical specialty of singer, songwriter and guitarist Patrick Sweany. He’s from Kent, not far from the Keys’ native Akron, and Keys front man Dan Auerbach even spent a short time in his band and produced one of his albums.
But there are far more interesting things to ask Sweany about than his rock star friend. For instance, how he fell in love with roots music while his peers were obsessed with hair metal. Or how he took advantage of the fact that veteran, Delta bluesmen had migrated to his neck of the woods. Or how moving from Kent to Nashville has shaped his albums — including his latest, Close to the Floor — and what it’s like returning to play his hometown.
CMT Edge: You just went back to your hometown of Kent, Ohio, and played the Kent Heritage Festival.
Sweany: Yeah. It was really cool. … We played at this club called the Zephyr, which is a club I’ve been playing at in some form or another since 1992.
Didn’t you have a residency there?
I had a residency there on Tuesday nights for almost 10 years. It was also the first place I ever got paid to play music, back in ’92.
Almost 10 years ago — this would’ve been like 2003 — they had my band start playing out there for that festival. … I think I’ve only missed one in the last decade. But it’s always been us at the Zephyr. …It’s the closest downtown bar that you can still check out the festival from. All my friends work there from back home. It’s my social circle. So it’s a fun homecoming thing.
All that was dead when I really started playing out in the ‘90s. I had a little PA that I was just carting around. Places that wouldn’t book a band would book me because I would play by myself or in a combo.
Years back, you wrote “Leave Ohio” about moving away from the scene where you were a big fish in a small pond.
Everyone I thought I knew [in Nashville] were all in road bands. That’s how I knew them, from touring. I’d call them up: “Now I live in Nashville, too.” “I’m gone until August, man.”
What’s it like going back to play Kent now that you’ve been gone six years?
I mean, crowds are bigger when you go home. It’s more an event because I do it less. … It’s always great. I don’t think anyone resents me for leaving or anything like that.
From what I’ve read, when you were a kid, you got into the folk records your dad collected in his younger days. But nobody else your age was listening to that stuff. What was that like?
I didn’t know that other people weren’t doing it at the time. I didn’t have a huge social circle of friends. I had two brothers, and that was my primary companionship. We were always hanging out together.
Then when I got into guitar, I was like, “Well, that’s cool. I can hang out with dad and his pal and play music, and I can figure these records out.”
So it wasn’t until high school, when I was listening to this Buddy Holly thing, the Crickets covering Little Richard. I played it for some friends of mine at football practice, and they were like, “This sounds like country music.” I was like, “Oh, man. I’m not going to tell anyone about this.” I said, “You’re right guys. Poison rules.” That was the era.
When did you first start encountering veteran performers in person, like Robert Lockwood Jr.?
Dad was always taking me to folk festivals and stuff. …There was one town about 20 minutes from us that would have touring bluegrass acts about once or twice a month at the high school auditorium. I saw Bill Monroe before I even knew who Bill Monroe was.
And I was just never afraid to bother old people. … My parents, they’re pretty smart folks. They taught us, “Have good manners, be respectful, don’t interrupt people. But if you don’t know something, you have to ask, or you’re never gonna know.”
A storied blues musician like Robert Lockwood Jr. must’ve fielded his share of questions from kids.
I always asked Robert about guys I knew he would be interested in because I’d seen moron tourists just bothering him about how [Lockwood’s legendary mentor] Robert Johnson made, like, a thousand records. If you’ve written a book, do you really wanna talk about your freshman English teacher? I think that’s really, really rude. I wanted him to show me stuff. I wanted him to like me.
How do you balance the autobiographical, folk-influenced elements of your songwriting with the classic, universal blues and soul idioms?
A lot of it has to do with Robert Lockwood because the first time I got to go over to his house, I got to play. He’s like, “Play something for ol’ Robert.” I played a Robert Johnson song for him and his son. It was something I’d really been working on for a long time. He was like, “You know, we already had one Robert Johnson.” (laughs) And it just ripped me a new one. I was devastated. He said, “You’ve gotta tell your story. That’s an old story.”
You do that with some pretty evocative late-night scenes in your new song “Bus Station.”
The simplest ideas are always the ones that seem interesting because people can relate to them. I’m not saying you should dumb everything down.
I could go on and on about the specifics, how that relates to my family, what went on that inspired the song “Bus Station.” But, in fact, everyone has driven by one. Everyone has rolled up their windows when they go by it. The realization hit me, “Man, that could be somebody I love right there on that bench.” … Everyone has somebody in their life that gets in trouble.
“Working for You” is a very believable song about the toll being a working musician can take on relationships.
Yeah. About being on a shitty tour. I guess that wouldn’t have been a song I would’ve written five or 10 years ago.
I wanted to look cool. You always want to look cool. But as I’ve aged I’m like, “Sometimes it’s cooler to not be cool at all.” And maybe that’s the Devo influence.