Featured Interview – Sean Carney

He had been there twice before as part of Teeny Tucker’s band, a big band that featured piano and saxophone, along with Tucker’s amazingly-powerful vocals.

But when he decided it was his time to step up front and showcase his own talents, he pared things down to just guitar, bass and drums, with himself on the mic.

That’s when he heard the whispers.

‘You’re not going to make it without that big sound.’

‘You need a singer.’

‘You’re not going to do it.’

Fortunately, Sean Carney simply ignored all the catcalls and tuned out all the outside noise that surrounded him and did it anyway.

And when he walked off the stage that chilly night in early 2007, Carney and his band had won the International Blues Challenge (IBC), with Carney also capturing the Albert King Award that same year, an honor bestowed to the best guitarist at the annual competition in Memphis.

“It’s (doubters and their talk) just fuel to the fire for me,” he recently said. “I had a two-year stint working as a journalist at a weekly newspaper in Fort Myers Beach, Florida and part of my beat was politics and covering the town council and all that stuff. So I got a crash course in publicity and I learned that when people are talking about you, that’s good. Whether they like you, or whether they don’t, if they’re talking about you – saying your name – that’s a good thing.”

They’ve been talking about the Columbus, Ohio-based bluesman – in a good way – way before him and his crew won the IBC. Despite his ever-increasing profile these days, Carney is no Johnny-come-lately to the party. He’s been a highly-regarded musician for going on three decades now and his first album – Provisions – came out in 1998. He also has a huge and loyal following over in Europe, where he’s played several gigs in the past few months alone.

“It’s been a really busy year – I feel really blessed. I’ve been particularly busy in Europe and I’m in Spain at the moment,” he said. “I started coming over here (Europe) just before I won the IBC. I had just made a deal with an (European) agency and had just started booking our first tour and then a couple of months into booking that tour, we won the IBC, which kind of kick-started that tour. The dates that we had that were open filled up pretty quick after that. I feel like I have a lot of great fans over here, especially like in France and Belgium.”

That’s due to plenty of hard work and non-stop touring overseas, where you still have to build up a fan base one person, one city and one gig at a time. Thanks to that elbow grease, Carney’s trajectory has been on the rise in Europe, evidenced by the way that the Sean Carney Revue has been packing them in.

“We just played at this really big festival in France (Bay-Car Blues Festival), which was great, because for the last few years, I’ve been kind of a ‘mid-card’ (in order of appearance at shows) kind of guy. I started out being the first guy on and then worked my way to the middle,” he said. “And now, just on this tour, really, we’ve had a couple of pretty-big festivals, like the Bay-Car, which I got to headline. So personally and professionally, it was a big deal to move into that realm and start to get some of those headlining gigs. It was really awesome to get to do a show with Shaun and Jonn and Omar. It’s great to have such a powerful, all-American lineup … a pretty diverse, small, all-American lineup, at that. I’m pretty proud of the collection of folks we have in our little crew.”

That ‘collection of folks’ includes – as Carney mentioned – Shaun (Booker), Omar (Coleman) and Jonn (Del Toro Richardson), who have also been integral parts of his last three recorded projects, works that might best be described as ‘collaborative efforts.’

The latest of that trio of albums (Blue Plate Special – Nite Owlz Records) hit the streets early this year and features the incredible vocal talents of Shaun Booker.

“Yeah, I’ve done three of those in the last few years – one with Omar (Very Lucky Man), one with Jonn (Drivin’ Me Wild) and this new one with a really great singer from Columbus, Ohio named Shaun Booker,” he said. “Shaun has been at the IBC and certainly got a lot of attention there. I feel like I’ve been in a position to open a few doors for some folks – particularly in Europe – and I’ve been a friend and a big fan of Shaun’s for a long time. We decided to do a CD together this year and line up some tour dates and it’s been good. I also got to do some dates over in France with Omar, which was really good, as well. I’ve been busy working with my fellow collaborative artists the past few months.”

When he’s not been out burning up the road, Carney has been in the studio this year and his newest album is set to see the light of day next month.

“It’s called Throwback and is all original tunes,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a departure for me … it’s the guitar album I’ve been threatening to make for a long time. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s my first Sean Carney release since 2008. I’ve been working with a lot of people and doing a lot of things, but I’m excited to see a new Sean Carney CD out in the market.”

Their styles may be completely different, but when Carney and Richardson (long-time guitarist in Diunna Greenleaf’s Blue Mercy Blues Band, and like Carney, winner of the Albert King Award at the IBC) do share the same bandstand, they mesh better than ice cream and cake.

“I just finished a tour with him about a month ago and have been fortunate to get to work with him. With Jonn and I, it’s (the chemistry between the two) pretty much been there from the get-go. We both turn into 12-year-olds when we get together. You know, crazy antics on stage,” Carney laughed. “But our styles are so different … drastically different, especially in our approaches. I can’t even attempt to play like Jonn and it’s probably vice-versa with him. We kind of just do our thing. We’ve both spent so much time backing up other people that we’ve learned how to be sidemen and get out of the way and showcase the other guy and make him sound good. That’s another of the strengths that Jonn and I have working together. It’s a fun show for us to do together and I think it’s fun for the audience, too. I’m a big, big fan of Jonn’s. I think he’s one of the best blues guitarists on the scene today. I’m in awe of him every time I play with him.”

Even though a great deal of his time the past eight or nine years has been spent on the road – over in Europe, even – Carney has still managed to muster up more than enough energy to create something that is really very special – Blues for a Cure (www.bluesforacure.com). That organization was immediately successful, with the first two Blues for a Cure shows alone raising over $50,000 for cancer research in 2007 and ’08. Since then, well over $163,000 has been funded.

“This is our eighth year with Blues for a Cure, which is a non-profit organization that I founded back in 2007, when my mom was in hospice. Fortunately, she’s really good and healthy today,” he said. “I felt like I needed to do something to give back to that, so this year we’ve implemented the Heather Pick Music Program (Pick was a news anchor at WBNS TV in central Ohio, who lost a battle with breast cancer) at the Ohio State University-James Cancer Hospital to bring music into the patients. There’s a lot of evidence that supports music being a really good thing towards healing people. It’s been really exciting to be a part of that … to try and do something good for people and leave some kind of a good footprint in the world.”

More than just charitable concerts, Blues for a Cure has also spawned a series of compact discs – featuring a who’s-who of the best blues players around. Instead of sounding or feeling like a hodge-podge of superstars being cut and spliced into something trying to resemble an album, to their credit, the Blues for a Cure discs sound and feel like a cohesive work, or one complete thought. To sum it up, they’re highly enjoyable works of art, which is something that can be hard to accomplish, when so many killer players are involved.

“For me, it’s cool as producer to get to handpick certain people to have come up with a song together. It’s awesome to have people like Duke Robillard and Omar Coleman … some really interesting stylistic variations, to do a song together. I think Jimmy Thackery described it really well. He said, ‘It’s like you guys take all the musicians and lock them in the studio for a day and don’t let them leave until the CD is done.’ That’s it basically, in a nutshell,” laughed Carney. “Taking people out of their comfort zone is really cool for getting some different results and to get them to step out and try something new. Of course, I’m honored and humbled to get to work with all these people. All these people who come to work with us at Blues for a Cure – as most of us do – have some story of being touched by cancer, through a loved one or a friend. People come in with a really positive attitude and a really good energy and feeling to come up with something good. It seems like the bar gets set higher every year for those (Blues for a Cure) CDs.”

The most recent Blues for a Cure disc – recorded in June of this year – has a unique twist to it.

“We had what we call a Southern Hospitality trifecta. We had Southern Hospitality (the blues super group made up of J.P. Soars, Victor Wainwright and Damon Fowler), plus we had J.P. and his band, we had Victor and his band and Damon and his band. It was a really killer session with those guys,” Carney said. “We really came up with some good stuff and it was really fun to turn those guys loose and sit back and just watch it. I’m really pleased with these CDs. It’s hard to believe we’re on the eighth one. We’re looking at 10 years coming up here real quick.”

Carney has also spent the past several years acting as a ‘camp counselor’ at another project that’s certainly close to his heart.

“This has also been the eighth year of Camp Blues, which is a camp that I run in my hometown of Columbus at the jazz academy. That seems to be getting bigger and bigger every year,” he said. “We’ve tied that in with a festival in Columbus, where the kids actually – for their final of the one-week program – get to play at the Creekside Blues Festival. It’s really cool to get to be a part of that first stage experience for a lot of those kids. It’s been really cool during the last eight years to see some of those kids come into their own as professionals … they’re competing with me for gigs and I love it! I think it’s important for us to develop a new audience, or otherwise, this music doesn’t have much of a chance. That’s why I love getting involved with the schools and with this camp.”

Music has been a fabric that runs through Carney’s family and it was his uncle David who started to hip a teen-aged Sean to some of the blues greats.

“My uncle David is a blues drummer back in Columbus. He’s the guy that kind of turned me on to T-Bone Walker and Robert Lockwood and all the great players,” Carney said. “I saw Duke Robillard – who is probably still my hero – back when I was about 15 or 16. Fortunately, I was also able to see Robert Lockwood (who lived in Cleveland, which named a street after the legend) about that same time. He was a big, big influence. I loved Robert, but never really got to play with him. We did jam a couple of times and I was really honored that he came out to hear me play one time at the place in Cleveland where he held court once a week. I was blown away and humbled when he showed up at my gig. He hung out and we jammed. He was really a sweetheart. Ronnie Earl was another one that I got to frequently see in Columbus. There was a couple of really cool blues clubs back in Columbus in the ’80s and ’90s. They’d have guys like Gatemouth Brown and Lonnie Mack and Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, Anson Funderburgh and Sam Myers … Little Charlie and the Nightcats. I got to see those guys a lot and got to open for them when I was young, which was cool. I was really lucky to get to see those guys.”

As supplanted by the list of bluesmen that he had the chance to see – and rub shoulders with – as a young guitar player, it’s easy to understand why Carney loves playing the jump blues.

“I love the music of the ’40s and ’50s and really got pretty deep into that for a long time, and I’m still really into the jump blues and jazz and swing,” he said. “The early rhythm-and-blues, I just love that stuff. Johnnie Bassett was another one that I was lucky to get to play with. I really love his style and those big, hollow-body guitars. That was a thing that really impressed upon me as a young man, those big guitars with the big sound that those guys got. I’d look at pictures of T-Bone Walker and then listen to his records. I thought that was about the best sound in the world.”

He had played with his uncles (in a band called The Joint Rockers, which is still going today), but Carney really started his own band when he was 18.

“That was my first band, which I called Sean Carney and The Nite Owlz. I had befriended a singer named Christine Kittrell, who was living in Columbus at the time. She was one of the real pioneers of the Nashville R&B sound in the late ’40s and early ’50s. She had recorded up until the early ’70s on labels like Vee-Jay and King, but had a real series of misfortunes and health maladies in the early ’70s and gave it up. I, and a few other people in Columbus, found out about her and kind of got her out and about and she started singing with my band. I really started that band to be her backing band,” he said. “As her health started to decline, she started to push me into singing. So that was about when I was 24 or 25. I wasn’t good, at all. We also backed up Big Joe Duskin and Jimmy ‘T-99’ Nelson, who was a big, big influence on me. Another real legend in Columbus – Willie Pooch – also played with me back then. There were a lot of great artists that I would back up and sing a few tunes to warm the band up.”

Not too long after that, Carney hooked up with another fantastically-gifted vocalist – the dynamic Teeny Tucker. That’s when he really started to come into his own as an artist.

“That was really the beginning of me ever trying to write any songs. I think it was her first effort at that, too. I knew her from around town, but didn’t know her that well. I knew she was more into singing pop kind of stuff then. We really connected through Christine, she was the one who introduced us. Teeny started coming out and fronting my band and eventually, we decided to start from the ground up and create a new band,” said Carney. “We wrote some original songs and put a whole show together. I really did take a backseat to my own front-work there for a few years when I was working with Teeny. But working with all these great singers gave me a pretty high bar to set for myself. I can say that I try and emulate a lot of the singers that’s I’ve worked with – in my own style.”

Around 2005, things started to fall into place for Carney to focus more on his own career.

“Teeny’s mother got real sick and eventually passed away, so she decided to take some time off from music and deal with her mother’s affairs,” he said. “That really gave me an opportunity and a platform to start focusing on writing my own songs and developing my own repertoire and work on my own talents as a front-man and singer.”

His decision to enter his band into the IBC was not a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. Rather, it was the end result of a choice he made to put another vocation on hold in an effort to devote more attention to playing the music that was pumping through his veins.

“I think for about two years in a row, prior to my winning the IBC, I was getting my duckies in a row to do this full-time. I had left my job at a newspaper down in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, where I lived for about two years. I had gotten more into politics and stuff like that when I was living down there,” he said. “I decided that I really didn’t want to quit playing music. In fact I wanted to really focus on it full-time. We had recorded a really great CD about a year-and-a-half prior to the IBC, called Life of Ease, and that was getting some really great attention from a lot of different folks. We had also started touring in Canada – mostly in western Canada – and found that to be a really great audience. My bassist and drummer had been with me for about 12 years, so we were really, really tight and were ready to do it that year. So that’s what we decided to do and that’s what we did.”

It may not have been exactly like pushing the ‘fast forward’ button, but there’s no doubt that entering – and winning – the International Blues Challenge back in 2007 paid immediate dividends for not only Carney’s musical career, but also for his charitable work, to boot.

“It definitely kicked me into high-gear, as far as being able to perform full-time,” he said. “I mean. there were some pretty tough years before the IBC. It hasn’t all been roses (since winning), but things have been pretty good for me since then. I feel like I’m in pretty good company with a lot of the winners … we’ve kind of created some different fraternities with some of the IBC winners. A lot of the IBC folks have been involved with Blues for a Cure, like Jonn Richardson, Bart Walker, J.P. Soars, Noah Witherspoon, Trampled Under Foot, Karen Lovely and Billy the Kid. We’ve created a really cool fraternity of finalists and winners. I can’t say enough good things about the IBC. I’m typically there every year.”

Visit Sean’s website at www.seancarneyblues.com

Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2015

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