Mikey Sweet Writes His Road Dog Gospel
"Broke musician needs money to finish album with big shot producer and hot band. God Bless. Mikey Sweet"
Western Massachusetts singer songwriter Mikey Sweet needed a kickstart towards the next step in his fledgling career. According to Mikey,"those words were splattered, sharpied, chicken-scratched on a cardboard sign. It was a little experiment I did to try to raise some money. Which we did."
Mikey decided to do a mini-tour of New England towns to raise the funds necessary to record what would become his second release, Road Dog Gospel. But, in true "road dog" style, he figured he would hitchhike between gigs and busk along the way. This approach to his Kickstarter campaign defines this artist's approach to life and, not coincidentally, his music. The songs are full of rogue characters, mostly down on their luck but not on their dreams. The songs like "Drybones" and "Brickwall" speak of brushes with the law that those folks whose lives are on the street know too well. "Afraid of the Thunder" and "Driftwood' chronicle those "day drunks" with little to do with their lives except to expand their dreams. Some of the "road dogs' in these songs are more fortunate than others. Some hop trains like the character portrayed in "Driftwood". Mikey Sweet tells me "Driftwood is a friend of mine who I met in Asheville NC. He was a fellow road traveller who hopped trains to get around. The road took it's toll on him. He was rough and alcohol was the center of his world. So when I met him it was early in the morning and he was blowing on a broken harmonica. He asked me for some change for a beer and I could tell he really needed one." Here's a few lines from that story song:
"There once was a boy from Western Carolina, he was baptised at eight, he never tried to hide it. But at 15, he hit the road, he never looked behind. You know the road has got a way, to hide it's souls. With a manic disposition, his feet never touched the ground. On a mile a minute mission, Boy was running at the speed of sound. By the time he reached Pacific, He saw the signs on the road, He saw a box car rolling slow. Well like a lone piece of Driftwood, he was floating down the stream. ..He don't know all the angels, were in the woods."-Driftwood
Jason Isbell is quoted recently while talking to Berkeley Music students on songwriting, he emphasized "the importance of embracing vulnerability. It's terrifying every time you do it but, that's being brave. It's hard to do. If you can overcome that fear, however, the audience will feel, Okay they're really giving me something here." That's my response to listening to Mikey Sweet's music. It feels authentic and real. They are beautiful but believable. When I ask, "How much Mikey Sweet is in Mikey Sweet's songs?' he comments that "these songs are what happens when I make sense of my life. I'm not proud of all I've done but, as I grow as a songwriter, I'll be able to use different approaches and formats and perspectives. But, now, we're gonna say that 99% of the songs are things I've experienced. Even songs about other people, it's still about me. Even when I do a cover, it sounds like it's about me."
Mikey Sweet's songs always have a glimmer of hope in them; being down but not entirely out. There's the idea the next mile-marker on that highway or journey will bring something better. Most of the songs from this disc chronicle this hopefulness. In"Behind The Rays" he sings " Heavy is your heart when there's nothing to believe." and in the confessional "Truth Hurts" he notes "while looking for a brighter day...You gotta believe in something."When asked about this hopefulness,Sweet concludes "Yes, that's what this journey's all about. You can write about depravity all you want, but it's so much nicer when things turn out better in the end". I ask if that is Mikey Sweet's "gospel"? The good news? After a bit of thought he responds,"Well 'road dog' is a term that people in my circle throw around, maybe entirely too much. The idea of the gospel is that in these experiences there's a spark of spirituality with the road and traveling close to the earth. When asked to describe my music, I call it 'Western Massachusetts Appalachian road dog gospel."
We talk a bit about faith, faith in yourself and in your fellow travellers. When I compared his hitchhiking road experiences to a hiker on the AT, Sweet agrees with the concept that the road, like the Trail, often provides just what you truly need. And, like the Appalachian Trail-weary hiker for which there are "trail angels", who are there when you need faith in humanity most. Even his song, "Driftwood" references those "angels in the woods"
But these songs are filled the alcohol and substance abuse, dishonesty and broken dreams, shattered relationships with little chance of reconciliation. These road scriptures paint a darker reality in songs like "Truth Hurts" and "Crawling In" which explore the song narrator's honesty to himself and his partner. This self reflection is not pretty although it is authentic. Anyone trying to crawl in late at night without being discovered can relate. When I asked Mikey about his songwriting "process", he laughs at the idea of a method or process at work. "I'd be lying to you if I said I had a method. There are natural habits that come into play when I process these song ideas. I'm the kind of guy, I'm in my head a lot so I'm constantly trying things out,processing my life, what's going on. A lot of times I find, in the morning I'm able to get some coffee and one of the first things I do is pick up my guitar. I'm not one to practice things so it kind of 'moans and groans' itself into words and music."
The music on this disc is rough and street weary. Intentionally, it emphasizes Mikey's vocals and acoustic guitar. Ryan Hommel's evocative pedal steel guitar adds a mournful layer that completes these modern day parables. Sweet's songwriting heroes Townes Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen are both touchstones for his sound. The big shot producer of Road Dog Gospel is Danny Bernini of SpiritHouse Music in Northampton,Ma. He helped Mikey with insights and help regarding crowd funding. Bernini, also had a particular sound in mind for this recording. As a unit, the band recorded much of Road Dog Gospel live in the studio. "Danny Bernini wanted to recreate the grittier sparser sound on this disc", Mikey explains, "the approach was to get these songs in a newer fresh way to represent whay my live show excells at."
This street prophet is on his way West. He just began his tour in support of Slaid Cleaves at his hometown show at the Iron Horse in Northampton,Ma. The road beckons and this time, Mikey Sweet is on top of his game. He's ready to be the "messenger of gladness" even with it's dose of world-weary truths. Catch this Road Dog Gospel and be ready to believe.