This article appears in the May/June 2015 “Blues Issue,” which hits newsstands May 5.
On a winter afternoon in East Nashville, Patrick Sweany’s house is filled with handymen. There are guys painting the staircase, guys sanding the ceiling, guys running electrical wire through the walls. In just a few weeks, Sweany and his wife will move everything they own into the 1940s brick colonial home, which they purchased in January 2015 and have been renovating ever since.
Oddly enough, Sweany picked the same time to write and record a new album. Most of that work is taking place several miles away, in a home studio owned by producer Joe McMahan. While Sweany’s home gets retrofitted with 21st century appliances and new wiring, his new album is heading in the opposite direction. Raw and purposely unpolished, it’s got more in common with Delta bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt and soul singers like Bill Withers than anything modern.
“It’s one of the rootsier, bluesier things I’ve ever done,” he says, taking a break from his construction projects to grab lunch at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant. “There’s a lot of fingerpicking on the acoustic guitar, in the Fred McDowell style. A lot of straight-up soul singing, too. Some playing in open D, which I haven’t done in years. Then we’ve got this funky, greasy, Muscle Shoals-influenced rhythm section to tie it all together.”
Before he moved to Nashville, Patrick Sweany grew up in northern Ohio. It was a typical childhood, punctuated by jam sessions with his dad and yearly trips to the Kent State Folk Festival. Later, while attending Kent State as an undergrad, he fell in love with Lightnin’ Hopkins, whose cool, confident blues served as a gateway drug for the rest of the genre. Sweany began seeking out old VHS tapes of blues legends – from Son House and Bukka White to Mississippi John Hurt – and studying their fingers, hoping to replicate their style on his own guitar. It worked. By the late ’90s, he was playing weekly shows in Kent and touring the Midwest whenever possible, championing the blues at a time when post-grunge reigned supreme.
Years later, the Black Keys – another Nashville act with roots in the Rust Belt – are Ohio’s best-known blues exports. Before the Keys signed a record deal with Fat Possum, though, frontman Dan Auerbach cut his teeth as a member of Sweany’s band, the two of them trading solos during a Monday night residency at Mugs Brew Pub in downtown Kent. Pictures from those early gigs show a young, goateed Auerbach staring at the floor, guitar in hands, while Sweany – pompadoured and sideburned, like a rockabilly musician – takes a solo.
Auerbach went on to produce a pair of Sweany’s solo albums. Despite the connection to a Platinum-selling arena act, though, Sweany has always played most of his shows in dive bars, rock clubs and juke joints. He’s a fan (and frequenter) of the road, armed with stories and scars gathered from the 49 states he’s crisscrossed in a van since the turn of the 21st century. The rough-and-tumble life of a bandleader on the run has left an impression on his music, too. These days, Sweany doesn’t just sing the blues; he barks it, croons it, howls it. He’ll emphasize certain melodies by doubling them on the electric guitar. It’s a style of music rooted in struggle, and Sweany – who, 20 years after graduating college, is just now scraping together enough cash to buy his first home – has plenty to draw from.
These days, though, he’s looking ahead.
“You can only write so many songs about living in the aftermath of something,” says Sweany, whose last album, Close To The Floor, was inspired by the death of several family members. “This new album is more about looking forward – about growing up and taking responsibility. It’s a very immediate thing, which might have something to do with the fact that more than half of the songs were finished in the last two weeks prior to recording, while we were working on the house. I was tearing out drywall one minute, then switching gears and grabbing the guitar and telling myself, ‘You have four hours to write. You need to make those four hours productive. Later, when you’re tired, you can drink coffee and sand a wall mindlessly, but right now, you’ve gotta respect the music.’ I think that focus helped.”
There’s no title yet. Sweany will figure out those details closer to the record’s release date, which is planned for sometime later this year. For now, he’s taking his own advice: respecting the music, living in the moment … and trying to finish sanding those walls.