For Sweet Olive String Band’s Mike Kerwin, the summer of ’06 was particularly tough. After months of repairing his Mid-City home, Kerwin and wife Sinead finally moved back in; but nearly a year after Katrina, things were hardly normal.
A sickening smell of garbage and rotting debris wafted about the air and when you looked down the street, no porch lights were lit—a familiar but unsettling sight of a city still in disrepair. Luckily, the Hi-Ho Lounge helped ease that transition with its Monday night bluegrass jams. “After Katrina, there was this time when people didn’t see each other much and it was nice that this was going on,” says Kerwin.
It was good to reconnect with everyone again, especially multi-instrumentalist Pat Flory, Kerwin’s former bandmate in Jeff and Vida’s New Orleans-based ensemble. At one particular jam, Kerwin kicked off a Stanley Brothers’ song, which motivated Flory, an authority on country/bluegrass brother duet groups (two men, though not necessarily related, singing blood harmonies), to join in on the high tenor part. “At the end of the night, I was like, ‘Hey Pat, you want to play a couple of gigs together?’ He said, ‘I’d love to,’ and that’s how it started,” Kerwin recalls.
It’d be hard to pick a better partner than Flory, who has been prominent in playing and preserving old-time country music (which includes bluegrass) on many levels in New Orleans since 1975, when he returned from grad school. Flory was practically weaned on country music, having grown up listening to the Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ole Opry broadcasts in the ‘50s. “Those harmonies really got to me,” said Flory. “I just really loved the high, clear singing they did.”
Already an accomplished musician at this point, a formative part of Flory’s growth in brother duets was befriending Bill C. Malone, a fellow musician who wrote the authoritative Country Music USA book that was published in 1968. Not only was Flory’s association with Malone educational, he also toured and played with him at various college lectures.
Flory’s first duet partner was Don Napier, whom he performed with as the Napier Brothers and opened for Bill Monroe at the House of Blues. While Napier was his first, Flory counts Kerwin as his fourth partner, putting him in good company.
In late 2012, Sweet Olive String Band (SOSB) released its eponymously titled debut, which, for the first time ever, showcased several Flory originals, revealing his keen talent as a songwriter. Three Kerwin songs emphasized the “brother” duet harmonies of Flory and Kerwin. But that was nearly two years ago when SOSB started rolling the tape and, since then, there’s been a healthy musical evolution. Flory and Kerwin have incorporated more brother duets into the quartet’s repertoire, making it an emerging strong suit. “I could never hear harmonies before,” Kerwin says. “I’ve always had to practice them ahead of time and now I’m just starting to hear them just being around the guy. You hear what he does and you just absorb it.”