The basic narrative of Mat Kearney's song "Rochester" has been well documented. His grandfather, who ran an illegal gambling ring in the New York city in the '50s, refused to pay the Mob a cut of his business, so they had him thrown in jail. "Rochester," told from Kearney's father's perspective, details the boy's journey to survive a rough upbringing and become a man.
What it only gives a hint to, is a story of young love.
After leaving home, Kearney's father became a lawyer, went to Vietnam, then spent some time as a ski bum in Breckenridge. From Breck, he moved to Hawaii for a job as a ship deckhand, and, as the song goes, "met a mermaid on a glass boat."
Kearney says his father, and soon-to-be mother, were introduced by a friend, and "the crazy part, is, they both walked away saying 'I met the person I'm gonna marry today.'" Barefoot on a beach in Hawaii, they sealed the deal six weeks later.
His most recent album, perhaps tellingly titled Young Love, includes "Hey Mama," a song detailing his own fall into love. The 33-year-old Oregon-bred, Nashville-based artist says the tale of his parents' immediate connection played a role in his own relationships.
"That puts a lot of pressure on a kid, if that's the story you hear in the family," Kearney says with a laugh. "You're waiting around for an angel to land from heaven on your shoulder every time you meet someone. ... That said, I was very enamored with my wife, on one level, but we weren't barefoot on the beach in Hawaii six weeks after we met, that's for sure."
The 2010 album, Kearney's third full-length, hit No. 4 on the Billboard Top 200 and No. 1 in a trifecta of Rock, Digital and Christian the week it debuted. And while he still plays, and enjoys, small venues like the Black Sheep where he'll visit next week, his audience is growing. Last fall, during the first half of his current tour, he performed a sold-out show at the nearly 3,000-seat House of Blues in Boston.
The musician wrote Young Love's story-driven songs intentionally to "feel like I had bled them, you know, and lived them.
"I just started digging around my friends and my family and was really writing the songs that maybe I should have always been writing."
That's true not just for the topics, but also the style, which can be, in his words, "almost schizophrenic."
"I go all the way from almost hip-hop like, real beat-driven music," Kearney says, "to, you know, me trying my best to make a Pete Seger song. ... I'm learning that the tension of those two places maybe is more who I am than trying to fit into one of those boxes."
Kearney says his music is an extension of his life. "Sometimes you're dancing around your room, clapping and stomping and trying to come up with the silliest, catchiest song you've ever written and there's other times, you're sitting down in your living room, and you're trying to understand God and life and pain and write a song like 'Rochester.'...
"I love writing in a way that maybe someone who doesn't see the world like I see it, is intrigued by the oddness of it. And the people that do, maybe feel encouraged by it."