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Musician brings New Orleans flare to Covington Square

Photo by Karen Rohr

Photo by Karen Rohr

Bobby Swain became a musician a little late in the game, some might say. But he's making up for it by having a ball, and making sure his audience does too, every time he plays.

So if you attend his free concert at 7 p.m. Friday on the Square in downtown Covington, be prepared to get involved -- he might even pull you up on stage.

"If you go some place and play all night long if nobody responds to what you're doing, you might as well be playing to an empty space," said Swain, a Newton resident of nearly six years.

Swain describes his style as "a little bit like gumbo," meaning he throws several genres into the mix. Born on the eastern shores of coastal North Carolina, he grew up listening to the singing in the peanut and tobacco fields. Determined to get away from the cold ocean breezes in the winter, he made New Orleans his home in the '70s, and stayed there until the city was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The city heavily influenced his musical style, a combination of Louisiana Blues, Zydeco, and New Orleans "Funky Music."

Swain was surrounded by the music of New Orleans, and it's most popular musicians, from the Neville Brothers to the Marsalis family to Allen Toussaint. He always wanted to play guitar and, in fact, kept one around the house. He never actually played, however, until he was encouraged to find a hobby he enjoyed while seeking recovery for trauma he suffered in the Vietnam War. He was 47 years old.

Since then, that guitar has become a constant companion.

"A musical instrument is a friend that will never let you down. People will. The instrument won't. It's always there, as faithful to you as you are to it," Swain said.

Describing himself as an introvert, Swain said he didn't intend to be on stage when he first started playing. But he was encouraged by his new friends in Covington to try it. He mostly does private and corporate events, staying out of the clubs. His goal is to have fun, not to get too mixed up with the business side of things, he said. A wedding in Tucker a few months ago spawned the idea for his third album, a self-produced effort of Swain and his band, The Blues Generation Band, playing live.

"Someone suggested recording it. I listened to it and it sounded pretty good," Swain said. Swain is still putting the finishing touches on the album, his third. Often, he gives away his CDs.

"Georgia is big and spread out ... You've got a lot of different areas and I guess the strategy behind that is to give something to people other than a performance so they will remember you. In my own little way, I'm trying to generate a following," he said.

Swain is playing live about once or twice a week now, accompanied by The Blues Generation Band, with Chester Benton on guitar; Jamie Hood on keyboard; Lee Hanson, horns; Jon Browne on drums; Robb Williams, percussion; and Chris Edwards, bass. Swain plays guitar and sings.

He still considers himself a novice.

"I still feel like I'm learning. I'm 62 now," he said.

Swain has plenty of time to practice, now that he's retired from the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers. He's enjoying the limelight, but it's not about fame or money for him.

"Everybody's star burns for a minute so when mine burns out I'll be happy. I won't have any regrets. I think I've had a pretty fruitful life in terms of my experiences," he said. "I had a negative experience in Vietnam. This is the brighter side of what I've experienced. If I can give something back to someone and make somebody's day, that's cool. I can't give somebody a whole bunch of money, but I can make them laugh. The whole emphasis is just to have fun."