Make no mistake about it: Sandra Swannell and Terry Young of My Sweet Patootie are having a heck of a good time.
First of all, there’s the name that the Canadian duo chose for their act—a cheeky term of endearment from the 1920s and 1930s. Then there are the quirky swing tunes that make up their repertoire: tales of a guy with a glass eye, a yodeling hound, and an amusing kiss-off to a lover who can’t take a hint.
Onstage, their banter is as light and fun as an old-time radio program. During a show earlier this year at the Endicott Performing Arts Center in Endicott, N.Y., they joked with the audience that staying with friends and supporters on the road while getting to play music is just a way to live off the hospitalitiy of others. “My Sweet Patootie,” Young said in a conspiratorial tone, “is just a front for our freeloading flim-flam scam!”
But if any doubt remains about how much they’re enjoying all this, watch them perform together live. As Swannell saws out fiddle riffs and Young’s hands blur on his acoustic guitar, their two distinct styles intertwining and playing off each other, they can hardly keep from smiling.
And why not? For a band in its second year of touring, Swannell and Young have had an impressive itinerary that’s taken them throughout Canada, the United States, and England. They also have two albums under their belts: 2008’s Nowheresville and 2010’s Patootified!.
The idea for My Sweet Patootie started when the pair played together in Tanglefoot, the folk stalwarts who toured with an ever-rotating lineup of voices and instruments for more than 25 years. When Tanglefoot folded at the end of 2009, Young and Swannell decided to make their side project a full-time gig.
Anyone expecting a Tanglefoot redux should think again, though. The two groups share a strong sense of humor, but their musical styles are quite different. Tanglefoot specialized in bombastic stories from Canadian history, while My Sweet Patootie has more of a rural-meets-urban vibe that draws inspiration from swing music and Swannell’s skewed storytelling.
“There’s a bit of rural grit in the things we do, some country colloquialisms that are smashed against uptown swing or city ideas,” Young said in an interview. “We like to think of our music as ‘Green Acres’ for the new millennium.”
For all of their joking around, Swannell and Young bring decades of hard-earned skill to the Patootie party. Swannell said that as a 4-year-old, “I’d go to kindergarten in the morning, and then in the afternoon I’d come home, put my pajamas on and practice violin all afternoon. That still sounds like my perfect day—except for the school part!”
For years, she straddled two worlds: classical and roots/rock music. While working as principal violist in the Georgian Bay Symphony Orchestra in Owen Sound, Ontario, she also played fiddle with a variety of bands (including a Celtic fusion group called The Shards) and was a session player who recorded with Canadian folk legend Stompin’ Tom Connors and others.
At some point, though, Swannell had to make a choice: “I realized that I wasn’t a very good little soldier, which you need to be if you’re in an orchestra—and I really loved the freedom of creativity on the other side of the musical fence.”
She joined Tanglefoot in early 2006 as its first female musician and found a kindred spirit in Young, who shared her love of swinging country blues.
“I was one of those snotty-nosed kids who liked to sing every day walking home from school, jumping in puddles and stuff,” Young said. “It seemed like that was what I was destined to do.”
In high school, he joined rock bands (including a Led Zeppelin cover band) but also took some classical training and listened to fingerstyle guitarists such as Bruce Cockburn, John Prine, and Chet Atkins. After a degree in classical voice from the University of Western Ontario, he worked full-time as a teacher and also played the “pub ghetto” scene around the Toronto area.
“It wasn’t until Tanglefoot asked me to join when I was 40—which was about 11 years ago—to quit my job and go out on the road,” Young said. “I thought, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll do that!’ That gave me the realization that what I had to offer had some value.”
Although he loved the group, he did a lot of sideman work playing mandolin, banjo and guitar leads. But he felt his real strength was as a fingerstyle guitarist. In 2005, he released a solo album, Letting Go of the Weight of the World, that showcased some of his other skills, and one day after she joined Tanglefoot, he asked Swannell to help finish a cute little instrumental tune called “Sweet Patootie Rag.” Then she showed him her own notebooks full of ideas.
“I had a collection of really quirky, ridiculous songs that I was mainly writing for my own amusement because I didn’t have a platform for it,” Swannell said. “It certainly was not in the realm of what Tanglefoot was doing, and it hadn’t fit with the group I played in previously. And, of course, other singer/songwriters weren’t really interested in doing your stuff— ‘just shut up and play the violin!’”
“So I had these quirky tunes that all swung, and once Terry had opened the door, I said, ‘I’ve got these crazy little songs— would you be willing to have a look at them?’ It started from there. Some of them, I would give Terry the feel and the idea —‘this one should be a ridiculous French waltz’ or whatever—and he would go from there. Other times I would say, ‘I have this song written, but I’m willing to just divorce myself from what it was and give you the lyrics—you go off and write the music for it.’”
She and Young alternate lead vocals throughout the 14 tracks on Nowheresville (produced by Canadian roots stalwart Ken Whiteley), and the themes reflect the duo’s back-to-the-land philosophy. On the sly “Gucci Gumboots,” Swannell offers a plea to a city-based lover to join her for a simpler life “like we did on blackout night” in 2003, and “Kemble Mountain” encourages climbing a notable Ontario landmark for a new perspective on life.
Some songs are just laugh-out-loud funny: A one-eyed guy named Guy buys a new glass eye in a toe-tapper called “The Marble,” Swannell yodels like an unhappy pooch in “That Wailing Hound,” and Young lends an over-the-top drama to the tale of woe from “The Dandiest of Dandelions.” But “The Roadside Evangelist,” based on a homeless person that Swannell knew, pulls from a more comtemplative place.
Young contributes some notable entries, too. “The Box” is a meditation on how live progressses, from playing in a cardboard box as kids to working in a cubicle as adults. He and Swannell also revisit the instrumental title track from Letting Go of the Weight of the World, giving it a little more texture and interplay as a duo.
Patootified!, 12 songs recorded with former Tanglefoot bandmate Bryan Weirmier as producer, continues the irreverent fun with catchy, upbeat melodies. “Daddy Needs a New Tractor,” for instance, laments how a musician’s life isn’t always a lucrative one; “That Love Thing” finds an anti-romantic going head over heels for someone special; “Coffee Bean” is filled with playful double entendres; and “Little Red Wagon” is based on Swannell’s own 1962 Buick Special Station Wagon, which always turns heads in her hometown. The Pat Benatar classic “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” gets stripped down and refashioned as a 1940s radio staple.
Among the more tender moments are “This Old Quilt,” which traces a family’s history through fabric squares, and “Fox & Possum,” a cross-border love story between an American and a Canadian based on friends of Swannell and Young.
Closing out the CD is “Bad Service,” previously on one of Young’s solo albums, but is reimagined here as a two-hander between a late-night diner patron and a snarky waitress.
“It’s evolved from a straight, humorous jazz thing into shades of Americana and there’s more of a crossover between country and jazz,” Young said. “We’re quite happy with how we can incorporate more ballads into what we do while still performing the fun, jazzy stuff. It makes for a good listen on the album and also makes for a good show, with a lot of variety.”
With their mix of two parts exemplary musicianship and one part vaudeville comedy, it’s clear the duo is prepared to Patootify the planet.
“We don’t hit people over the head—there’s nothing preachy about our show or our music,” Young said. “At the same time, we do tackle some issues, but they’re buried in the fun and twist of words in the songs. I leave that up to listeners to figure that all out.”
He and Swannell are figuring out plenty of things themselves—and they’re finding receptive venues for their music through their Tanglefoot connections as well as from concert promoters who have never heard of their previous band.
“We’re chipping away, and we have our own little plan and things we’d like to accomplish,” Swannell said. “You gotta have a plan—otherwise you just sit around in your pajamas all day. Trust me, I know!”
“Yeah,” Young added with a laugh, “me too!”
—Chris Kocher (Vestal, NY)