In 2001, singer-songwriter-guitarist Patrick Sweany was 27 years old — the same age Delta blues icon Robert Johnson was when he died under mysterious circumstances in 1938. Sweany had been playing blues guitar since his early teens, and when he had the chance to meet Robert Lockwood Jr., the only Delta bluesman to learn guitar directly from Johnson, Sweany jumped at the chance.
“He was living in Cleveland playing blues festivals and was still doing his thing,” Sweany says. “I got to open some shows for him, and I went to his house a couple of times. The first time I visited him, I got to play a Robert Johnson song knees to knees with Lockwood. For me, it was a crowning moment. I was thinking, ‘I nailed this. I got to play with a guy who can appreciate that I’m playing it just like Johnson.’
“He was very encouraging,” Sweany continues, “but then he put his hand on my knee and said, ‘You know, they already had one Robert Johnson, and that’s an old story. You gotta tell your story.’ I was devastated. I cried in the car the whole way home, but that was it. It was the best advice I have ever gotten.”
Fate has been much kinder to him than it was to Robert Johnson, but it doesn’t mean the path that Sweany chose has been simple. Born in Massillon, Ohio, he first discovered traditional folk and blues through his father’s record collection. “He was a very hardcore roots folkie,” Sweany says. “He stopped buying Dylan records when Dylan went electric.”
For a boy growing up in the Rust Belt region of Ohio in the 1980s and early ’90s, tuning into the traditional blues of the Mississippi Delta was almost an act of rebellion. “I was totally secret about my music,” he says. “I was getting in fights enough. Where I grew up, you were either into hair metal or Hank Jr.”
The story changed once he entered college at Kent State University. Plugging into the local folk and blues scene, Sweany played open mic nights and eventually scored paying gigs, hooking into a circuit of blues clubs and self-releasing an album of acoustic blues, I Wanna Tell You, in 1999.
“Every city had a blues bar back then that would be open for about a year,” he says. “I was working four or five nights a week, making my living playing covers of traditional blues stuff that I worked hard to learn the right way, but I eventually began slipping original music into the set.”
Forming an electric band, Sweany released three albums and an EP between 2001 and 2005. While the modern blues circuit supplied a steady audience, he soon found the demands of the genre too restrictive.
“I was writing originals, but that was not what the blues scene wanted,” he says. “Around 2005, I met Rick Pierik of Nine Miles Records, and he was the only guy that asked me what I wanted to do, instead of what have you already done?”
Signing with Nine Miles Records, Sweany began exploring his own fusion of traditional blues and garage rock. With The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach on board as producer, Sweany cut C’mon C’mere at Jimbo Mathus’ studio in Clarksdale, Miss.
“We did a one-day session,” Sweany recalls. “We just set up and rocked. That was our juke joint record, and it really had the sound I was going for.”
Released in 2006, C’mon C’mere scored high with critics, but found little financial success. The next year he returned with another critically acclaimed release, Every Hour Is A Dollar Gone, again produced by Auerbach. Primo opening spots on tours with The Black Keys, The Gourds, and others followed, but sales still lagged. A move to Nashville in 2009 made touring easier, and his artistic vision of melding traditional blues with other influences was getting sharper with each album; financially, however, Sweany was making little headway.
“I was in pretty dire financial straits,” he says. “I had enough money to get another record started, but not enough to finish it. Then all of sudden, these weird digital royalty checks started trickling in for the song ‘Them Shoes’ (from Every Hour Is A Dollar Gone).” Sweany’s past association with Auerbach was beginning to pay dividends after The Black Keys’ 2010 album, Brothers, catapulted the band into superstar status.
“Pandora radio had become a thing, and since I was associated with The Black Keys, it became part of the algorithm of what was being played and recommended,” he explains. “And then that translated over to the Jack White channel on Pandora. Suddenly, there was a little bit of capital to work with, and I was able to put out That Old Southern Drag in 2011. But it went nowhere, and I thought, ‘This is it. I’m done.’ ”
As if the frustration over lack of financial success wasn’t enough, Sweany and his wife, barely married a year, were soon facing a major family tragedy when both her younger brother and sister died. Pushing their way through the heartbreak, Sweany found the financing and will to record another album. Working with producer Joe McMahan, he released Close To The Floor
“I thought it would be my last record,” Sweany says. “I wrote the songs to deal with a lot of the grief we had gone through. When I was first writing them, my wife said, ‘It’s too much. You’re putting our business in the street and it upsets me.’ She couldn’t listen to it. I realized I needed to expunge, but I was doing it in a way that was affecting people I cared about. So I rewrote those songs to be less voyeuristic and irresponsible, and they became more effective.”
Hailed by critics, Close To The Floor wasn’t the sales breakthrough Sweany was hoping for, but his live appearances started telling a different story. Many of the new fans were being brought in by the one song.
“Because of The Black Keys connection, ‘Them Shoes’ just kept getting bigger, and that translated into bigger audiences,” he says. “The album was 6 years old by that time, but it was soon outselling the rest of my catalog combined. When you added that to the income from live shows, it was like I was a real wage earner. Sometimes there has to be a connection to someone famous for people to discover it, and I’m thankful for that
In the last two years, Sweany has found much more to be thankful for. His marriage has grown stronger — he and his wife bought their first house — and he’s come to appreciate the truly amazing gift of having a career in music, even if it’s a life of unconventional work hours and a lower-middle class income. All of these themes are reflected in his new record, Daytime Turned To Nighttime.
“I’m a much happier person,” he says. “To quote one of my favorite writers in town, Steve Poulton of the Altered Statesmen: ‘I’m a big boy now.’ That’s what the whole theme of this album is — living in the aftermath of something terrible is something that you can only do for so long. You owe it to yourself and other people to start building on top of it. You’re not forgetting anyone or devaluing them, but there’s a time when you have to start living up to life.”
That sound is reflected in Daytime Turned to Nighttime through songs that mix Sweany’s blues, rock, and soul influences with sharp and focused songwriting. “This album is also a lot more laid back, that’s something that the producer, Joe McMahan, and I really talked about. I always wanted to be Howlin’ Wolf, but I also wanted to be Brook Benton. I also wanted to have fingerstyle acoustic guitar, and I wanted to play slide guitar, and do these things that connected back to the beginning of my career.”
Although Sweany reached back to his hardcore folkie-blues roots for some of the elements on his new record, he’s learned how to blend those primary colors with more subtle shades. The result is powerful music that proudly displays its origins while also looking to the future. It’s been a long road since he stood at the crossroads of his career, playing for one of his musical idols and being presented with the choice between the path of ersatz bluesman or cutting his own trail, but he made his choice and he stands
“I don’t have the right to say I’m a bluesman,” he says. “I’m very influenced by the blues, but I’m a rock & roller. I’m a white kid from Ohio. I was brought up on cereal made with high fructose corn syrup and cartoons all day on Saturday. I’m not being dismissive of people who have really embraced and digested that style and can paint with only brushes of the blues, but I’m too all over the place. I’ve got a soul song here and a blues song and a rock & roll song. I just need a lot more brushes to tell my story.”