Halifax singer Thom Swift goes back to basics

Photo: Scott Blackburn

Thom Swift’s memory of his first meeting with Roy Black is hazy. The two musicians met once, 30-some years ago, in some music venue out West.
“We met and immediately hit it off,” Swift says. “He never settled really in one place, but we kept in contact over all those years. He’s kind of an odd jobber. He’s been doing many different things all over the country. All over the world, really.”
But while Swift is short on details of their first meeting, he’s remembers well the influence Black had on his long and steady musical career. Swift says Black was always a straight shooter, and didn’t shy away from anything.
“I always admired him for that,” he says. “For a long time now, he’s always with me, specifically when I am by myself. I do a lot of travelling by myself. He’s this guy that is in the back of my mind.”
Now decades after that first meeting, Swift turns Black’s influence on him into his fourth solo album, The Legend of Roy Black. “It was time to pay homage to him, give him a little acknowledgment,” Swift says.
But Black wasn’t the only inspiration for this 10-track album. Swift says The Legend of Roy Black represents a transition in his own life: marriage, raising children, aging parents, and even loss.
His songs reflect all those experiences. “Broken Glass” is about three of his friends, all of whom lost their wives in recent years. “House” is about taking care of aging parents, and seeing them transition from a working life to one where they need more care. He even covers the Porter Wagoner tune “Satisfied Mind,” the lyrics relaying a message Swift wanted to get across in his music: “Money can’t buy back / Your youth when you’re old / Or a friend when you’re lonely / Or a love that’s grown cold.”
“It’s not just Roy, it’s me, too,” Swift says. “It’s the real me,” Swift says. “It feels very organic. Not that my other stuff didn’t feel real. All the stuff I write is about real-life stuff. I think it undoubtedly has something to do with age.”
This work also marks a return to basics for Swift. The music is stripped down to vocals and strings, more folk and roots. There are no drums or electric guitars. Swift remains masterful on the acoustic and resonator guitars, and continuously strong in his baritone voice.
There are others who join him: Tom Easley on stand-up bass, Asa Brosius on pedal steel, J.P. Cormier on mandolin, violins and banjo, and Dave Gunning on high-strung guitar.
“I always have people come up to me and say thank you because I was going through a tough time and you helped me,” Swift says. “That is the intent. That’s what it’s all about; make people slow down for a little bit.”
Swift and Black still keep in touch. Sometimes they don’t see each other for years, but they will connect via a yearly phone call. Black avoids the constant communication today’s world of social media. “Anonymity is huge for him,” Swift says. “He’s kind of this mysterious guy.”
For Swift, Black’s legend is a simple one: goodness. “He’s been such a positive figure in my life for all these years, for all the good things, always having the right things to say,” Swift says. “Living his life the way that he’s lived it has been a lesson for me. I appreciate everything that he has given me over the years. It’s a tip of the hat to him. I think there is a bit of Roy Black in all of us.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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