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Family Fun

Not only does guitarist Patrick Sweany jam the blues -- he also digs go-karts.

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Sweany rocks what is known as the "porn biker" look. - EARTHA GOODWIN

It's just after five on a weekday. The Sluggers & Putters Family Fun Center in Canal Fulton, just outside of Akron, is nearly empty. The batting cages are quiet; the driving range is deserted. I'm meeting Patrick Sweany for mini grand-prix racing. A blues guitarist from Massillon, Sweany has known the road intimately for more than a decade. He's also the only thirtysomething I know who proudly proclaims ownership of a go-kart.

Sweany is tall and rangy, with a thick mane of dark curly hair. He credits his love of roots music to his father, who took him to lots of folk shows when he was younger, including one by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. It's there that Sweany's love for guitar first bloomed. His father also played guitar and banjo, and taught him some rudiments when he acquired his first six-string at age 12.

The go-kart track is empty, presided over by a languid teen in a ball cap reminiscent of Danny Noonan, the main character in Caddyshack. Sweany, whose parents run a golf course, immediately seizes upon the reference. "Do you take drugs, Danny?" he asks, mimicking Chevy Chase's famous query. We dissolve into laughter.

In high school, Sweany noticed other teenagers didn't get his interest in roots music. He recalls playing friends a cover of Little Richard's "Keep a Knocking" by the Crickets and saying he thought the riff was the hardest thing ever. They were unimpressed. It's then that he realized he would have a double life: the rock his friends liked and his "secret guitar life." Of course, he assumes some of the blame. He consciously avoided the Beatles, for example, simply because everyone said they were so good.

"I was like 18 or 19, and I'd have this great Gus Cannon song or a really good version of a Son House song," he says, recalling the days when he played open-mic nights. "And it would piss me off, because some skinny joker would play a shit version of 'Blackbird,' and the girls would go nuts."

Fortunately, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan came along. The economic upswing in the '90s dovetailed with the guitarist's reinvigoration of the blues, which encouraged those flush with cash to open blues bars (like House of Blues) across the country. "As a young man in my early to mid-'20s, I was able to work five, six nights a week. This was right around 2001. After September 11, that entertainment dollar went away," says Sweany, referring to the downturn during the last quarter of '01, after the terrorist attacks. "It was tough. About that time I was getting married, and I realized I had to change directions a little bit. I started thinking, 'This isn't going to last. I can't just be an imitation of something else. Shit, I need to work more on doing my thing.'"

After splitting a pair of races, we walk toward some benches next to the batting cages. Sweany talks about his friend, the Black Keys' singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach, who started sitting in with him at his regular Monday-night gig at the Mugs in Bedford. When the bass player flaked, Sweany suggested they forge ahead with just two guitars and drums, like one of their heroes, Hound Dog Taylor -- which they did for a while. Unfortunately, the drummer also flaked around the same time the Keys started to take off. But Sweany kept the format, dropping the bass and using the second guitar, which complemented the melody instead of shadowing it, as a bass often does. "I thought, 'Wow, that really works,'" says Sweany.

He has plied this style to fine effect over three albums, including his new Auerbach-produced release, Every Hour Is a Dollar Gone. "It sounds really scrappy, and it cuts through, and it's a lot more dynamic," Sweany says of the approach. "That's when I noticed more young people realizing I wasn't just playing this museum music."

While there's nothing antique about Sweany's music, it can feel like a museum in that Sweany covers so much history. "I don't want to give the public any reason to bitch. You want hot guitar? I'll give you hot guitar. You like a good ballad? You like a little twang?" explains Sweany. "You want to entertain people. You don't want this to be music for a bunch of kids wearing their mom's jeans and razor-cut hairdos. It's fun when you bring your mom out to the gig. It's fun when you bring the family out to the gig."

With that, Sweany returns to the racetrack for one more circuit, joined by a pair of parents and their kids. Sweany beams a grin as he circles the track. In a couple hours he plays and, later that night, embarks on a long drive to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for a three-day music festival that he is headlining. He looks like he's having fun, and you certainly won't hear him complain.

"I've known what I wanted to do since I was 12 years old -- that I wanted to be what I am right now," he says. "That's what you don't realize. I get to go out there and do my favorite thing with my pants on."

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