For years, one of the coolest sights on the Upstate music scene was singer Little Lesley Swift standing atop her double bass, thumping out rockabilly rhythms with her band, The Bloodshots. It was a sight and a sound that got Swift noticed outside of our comfy South Carolina confines, and Little Lesley & The Bloodshots were able to supplement their local gigs by playing prestigious rockabilly festivals around the world.
But for those who chose to take a deep dive into The Bloodshots’ most recent album, “Heartbeat,” it was clear that Swift was a fan of more than just double-time rhythms and stuttering guitar riffs. Mid-tempo ballads like “I’m Sorry” and “Spell My Name” revealed a promising honky-tonk country singer-songwriter hiding beneath the stacked heels and big hair.
And indeed, honky-tonk country is the musical direction Swift has headed in since “Heartbeat” came out. She recently revamped the Bloodshots, expanding it from a chopped-and-channeled guitar-bass-drums trio to a quartet that includes pedal-steel player (and occasional lead guitarist) Sean O’Shields, drummer Brian Kennedy and bassist Mark Dye, with Swift switching to rhythm guitar. She’s also written a set of fresh honky-tonk heartbreakers for her new band to perform.
“I feel it’s definitely been a move in the right direction,” she says. “I don’t have any regrets. I think we still have enough of that rockabilly in us that we really feel part of a part of that community to some degree. Honky-tonk is right on the border of rockabilly, right? So I haven’t had to give that up entirely.”
Swift says that she feels a lot more freedom as a songwriter now that she’s moved toward country.
“It’s really challenged my songwriting ability,” she says, “and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to get out of rockabilly. There tends to be a really set, formulaic structure in rockabilly, and I felt like there was a lot more room in honky-tonk; there’s just more variety with the songwriting that I’ve really enjoyed.”
Swift also decided that she needed a residency-style regular gig to hone her new band and new material before recording a new album early next year. That’s how “Honky Tonk Happy Hour,” a weekly Thursday night show at Greenville’s Velo Fellow, was born.
“I just really wanted to pick up a residency to get us together every week and get us tight,” she says. “And so we started thinking about where we wanted to do it and everyone thought Velo Fellow would be a good choice. And I was trying to think of a good name, and I went with ‘Honky Tonk Happy Hour’ because we really want to create that honky-tonk vibe.”
That vibe is an important part of the equation, and Swift says the Velo Fellow’s setup, which has the stage in a different room than the main bar/restaurant area, is the ideal setting.
“I want it to feel like if you’ve had a rough week, come enjoy some drinks and some music and kick back, you know?” she says. “Forget about life for a little while; that’s kind of our whole thing. And it’s a cool room, because you’ve got the bar in the other room for people who really just want to talk to each other, but then you’ve got this nice back room for people who definitely want to be engaged with the music.”
Swift and the new-look Bloodshots play three sets of rockin’ country every Thursday night, mixing her own new material with that of other honky-tonk-appropriate artists.
“We do a pretty good mix of probably two-thirds original music and one-third covers,” she says. “We’ll do old Hank Williams songs, we throw in some Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline or Dolly Parton, and we do Dwight Yoakam, too. It’s just old-school honky-tonk classics, and we do some obscure tracks that real aficionados will appreciate. It’s been really great.”
Honky Tonk Happy Hour runs from 7:30-10:30 p.m. Thursdays at The Velo Fellow.