Growing up in Southern California during the 1970s, Harlis Sweetwater had two major influences: The first was his mother, the second, Chuck Berry. Both were guitarists and vocalists.
The art of being able to do both at the same time isn't as easy as some might think, but Sweetwater remained dedicated. Still in elementary school when he started, he practiced with fervor.
“Learning chords and playing chords and trying to change those chords along with the melodies and singing at the same time kept me busy,” he says. “A lot of practice and a lot of trial and error but a lot of influences [played and sang at the same time] so it pushed me to say, ‘I can do this, I can do this.’”
As luck would have it, he wasn't the only boy his age interested in learning an instrument or listening to popular music.
“We moved to this new development in the suburbs, in Orange County, I met a bunch of kids and we were all into the same bands,” he says. “This was in the late ‘70s. They introduced to bands like Kiss.”
Encouraged by his mother and a fourth-grade teacher, Sweetwater continued playing guitar and singing and before long also became invested in the art of live performance.
“At first what we would do is put on concerts in our garages for the neighbors. We would get Christmas lights and dress up like Kiss and put on the album and lip sync to the album and put on a Kiss show. Later on, we would do the same thing, once we had learned how to play, we would do The Beatles and The Kinks and Ozzy, Blue Oyster Cult. We’d actually play the songs,” he says. “We’d have these concerts in the garage.”
Sweetwater and his bandmates would pop Jiffy Pop popcorn for concertgoers, selling bags for five or ten cents, giving them all an early lesson in the power of concessions. Sweetwater continued on this track for several years, playing church gigs and anywhere that would have live music. He graduated to the clubs and spent much of the 1990s with the band Barrelhouse OC, then Bastard Winos. Until a few years ago, most of his live performances were West Coast affairs. Eventually, he decided he wanted to be more than a regional musician.
“People would always tell me, ‘Oh man, you gotta get out to the Midwest. They love live music out there.’ I had always heard that and said, ‘Let me get a van. We’re going to do this.’ So, we did," Sweetwater says. "One thing led to another. We started in dive bars, then we got our first festivals. It was neat. Kind of goes from there.”
Sweetwater's latest album, Holler Stomp & Growl, combines his interest in the soul, blues and southern rock, spotlighting both his guitar playing and singing. Though he's earned a fan base that spreads outside his longtime Southern California home, he maintains at least one fan from his earliest days.
“My mom is my biggest and my number one fan,” he says. “She was a singer when she was younger. She’s got a beautiful voice. It’s very operatic. She did shows for the USO and different things like that. She does come out to my shows whenever I’m in town. She listens to my music when she does on her walks in the morning. She’s always very interested in what I’m doing and I think she really, really loves it and loves that I’m doing it.”
The Harlis Sweetwater Band performs at The Elbow Room in Wichita on Friday evening and The Rusty Nail in Hutchinson on Saturday.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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