The acclaimed blues musician steps out of the closet.
Like gospel, the blues has a deeper mission than most music—namely, to restore the humanity of its African-American players whose dignity was stripped from them by the down-by-law Jim Crow era. So perhaps it stands to reason that the color-blind art form could help a secretly gay man cope even in this postmodern age. “It was my blues card, all right,” says Columbus guitarist and vocalist Sean Carney of his hidden life. “It made my blues more real.”
Carney is a well-known Columbus musician. After first making a name for himself as a sideman for the talented blues singer Teeny Tucker and other performers, Carney struck out on his own, earning acclaim for his skillful guitar playing, gracious personality and encyclopedic musical knowledge. Throughout his steady ascent—which received a major boost in 2006 when he won the prestigious International Blues Competition in Memphis—Carney has kept quiet about his sexual orientation. It wasn't surprising. It's about as common to find an openly gay bluesman as it is to find an openly gay power forward.
But Carney is now willing to talk about his lifelong secret. What changed? Shifting societal norms, of course, as highlighted by the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage across the country in 2015. But the biggest factor was more personal: Carney met the love of his life, and he's ready to share the news with the world. “The timing just happened,” Carney tells me over a latte at Stauf's in Grandview one chilly February evening.
I've known Carney a long time, first meeting him in the mid-1990s when I was working behind the counter at the old Mole's Record Exchange on High Street. Later, I wrote about him during my many years as the music critic for the now-defunct Columbus alt-weekly, The Other Paper, admiring his progression from Tucker's bandleader to a dynamic front man in his own right. Carney is a congenial, easygoing guy, but he's also careful, thoughtful and controlled. He's not one to bare his soul to a writer—or anyone else, for that matter.
Music, however, is another story. It's the family business, and he loves to talk about it. His father, Harry, a classically trained musician, was the strings director in the Dublin school district. More importantly—and perhaps crucially—he also was a jazz bassist, while his aunt, Michelle Horsefield, was an accomplished jazz singer well-known throughout Central Ohio. As a teenager, Carney learned to play guitar by sitting in with his uncle Dave West's band, the Joint Rockers, a Saturday night blues 'n' boogie combo. Eventually earning a permanent spot in the group, Carney matured musically faster than most thanks to the plethora of mentors surrounding him, teaching him craft and sophistication. In addition to straight Chicago blues, Carney is fluent in several offshoots of black R&B: jump blues, swing, New Orleans groove. “I was surrounded by a lot of older, pretty hip players, and I got a lot of real-world schooling,” Carney says. “Older white guys who were so hip, man, they were so fun.”
While music was his passion, Carney put his sexual identity on the back burner. “Those were rough years inside,” Carney says. “I tried counseling, went on meds, gained a lot of weight. But the music was what really got me through the rough years.”
Carney estimates he's toured blues-hungry Europe some 30 to 40 times. Winning the 2006 International Blues Competition gave him the confidence, credibility and connections to play for audiences overseas anywhere from two weeks to two months at a time.
After coming home from one of those European tours in February 2016, Carney met Jared Davis, 28, through the gay dating app Grindr. Though Davis is 16 years younger than the 44-year-old Carney, the proverbial sparks flew: a one-night stand turned into inseparability. When Carney hit the road again, the couple talked on the phone every day. Upon Carney's return to Columbus, they moved in together. “What can I say? I met someone I couldn't live without,” Carney says. The two married in October 2016, in a small, private ceremony at Carney's family's home. “Just a few people, us and our moms,” Carney says. “We cried a lot.”
In a joint interview, I asked Davis about his coming-out story. Was it as difficult as Carney's? “I got into a fight once. But no, it wasn't a big deal for me,” he explains. Such, apparently, is the difference between generations.
Jokingly, I turn to Carney and ask, so what's your problem? To which he loudly blurts, “I'm Catholic!” and we all laugh. Of course, he wasn't really joking. The fear of a disapproving God is a powerful force for the faithful. Carney says he dealt with the conflict by playing a lot of music with older adults who never asked why he didn't go home with the girls who approached him when he got off stage. “I think I was pretty convincing,” he says. “I learned how to let the girls down pretty easily.”
He feared exposure, confiding in a very small circle of family and friends. Even that was betrayed when someone used the information against him. Carney has long spearheaded a charity gig called Blues for a Cure, raising nearly $230,000 for a local hospital to fight cancer. Early in the organization's decade-long existence, a person approached the hospital board—described by Carney as “mostly Republican and conservative”—and told the members that Carney was gay. Carney was mortified, then pleasantly surprised. “Nobody cared,” he says, noting his obvious relief. Still, it would be several years before he felt comfortable enough to let the world know. Love was the inspiration.
“I have never felt the closeness I feel with Jared with anyone else, and amazingly, he feels the same way,” Carney says. “We just naturally fit; we laugh an awful lot. We don't fight.” There are, of course, differences—the essential varietal mix that keeps a relationship interesting. Carney introduced Davis to the blues, while Davis introduced Carney to ska punk and the Clash. They've bridged their age differences naturally.When seen together, their adoration for each other is obvious and unspoken.
Carney's gentle side has always been a big part of his appeal. Prior to going out on his own as a singing front man for his own bands, he backed a series of black female singers, including Tucker and later, Shaun Booker. In fact the first person he ever came out to was a black woman he'd been working with, Christine Kittrell, a '50s regional R&B success who made singles with the likes of Little Richard and later spent her final years in Columbus. “She said, ‘Honey, you just be cool,'” drawing out the word in his best imitation of a husky-voiced diva replying in the spirit of “let the good times roll.”
Carney has played to his passions throughout his career—apprenticing with mentors, pursuing the original purveyors of jump blues, touring Europe (and an ill-fated jaunt to India where the promoter asked him for cab fare), releasing his own CDs. Now that he is “out,” will he write of his life experiences?
Again, a long pause of Carney thoughtfulness. “I've been thinking about it.” No smile. Courage doesn't always grin. This is the next big step. We discuss the ins and outs of it: The universal approach could eschew gender pronouns like he and she when writing a love song. What's more universal than “baby?” Carney: “True. I hadn't thought of that.”
I suspect he's struggling to relax his mask of emotional and survival armor. Discretion is the theme of his life. It took a lot for him to post a photo of him and Davis together on Facebook earlier this year, a subtle semi-public signal that led to this article. I didn't even find out that he and Davis were married until my second interview with Carney.
As a songwriter going deep, this discretion can be an obstacle. Then again, a curse can turn into a blessing.
It's February, and Carney is performing at Mudflats, a family restaurant in Galena 20 miles north of Columbus. It's true-blue heartland Americana food and folk. They eat, they listen and interestingly enough, they stay.
Carney plays the song “I'm in a Phone Booth, Baby,” with the band following his verses with support and sympathy. His solo goes high, the notes getting an arcing sustain that seems to excite some of the diners who are now working on their liquid desserts. He holds a high note, then plunges down his guitar's neck for a few growling riffs before giving his solo a happy landing with just the right touch of jazzy blue notes.
The guy has craft. And in spite of his natural tendency toward privacy, he has a dynamic stage presence. His band is essentially the Joint Rockers—unsmiling Uncle Dave on drums, bassist Sam Williams and the utterly killer horns duo of Chuck “Albino Red” Moore on sax and Jim Godin on trumpet. I haven't seen Carney perform for a few years. He wasn't born a natural singer, but he's worked hard to turn himself into a capable one. The band is so telepathically rhythmic I am stunned to be seeing such a fine rockin' blues outfit in the middle of Nowhere, U.S.A.
Five minutes before the first break of the night, Carney and his lifelong mentors launch into a powerfully grooved version of the classic instrumental theme song for the TV show,Peter Gunn. Five fairly young immigrants from India crane their necks to watch Carney's troupe take apart and reassemble one of the greatest riffs of all time.
One of the best moments occurs during Carney's third song, a hearty version of the Jimmy Witherspoon version of the classic “Ain't Nobody's Business.” Carney was feeling it, and the crowd was, too. In fact, he does something he never would have dared before: He subtly changes the “she” in the lyrics to “he.”
If anybody notices, they don't seem to care. Maybe the healing power of music is the quiet revolution he needed all along.