Beaufort News

O'Leary is a familiar face behind the guitar

"The new stuff stinks!" according to musician Kirk O'Leary, better known as SWIG, during one of his recent regular gigs at Bricks on Boundary in Beaufort.

He wasn't referring to his own tunes but to most popular music created in the past 30-40 years. He grew up in the '70s and learned to play Jim Croce and James Taylor -- whom he called "good and technically good folk musicians" -- and he still listens to the same kind of music his audiences want to hear.

"I'll be honest with you," he said, when asked what is on his iPod. "It's Boston, Kansas, Journey, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, (Creedence Clearwater Revival) -- the stuff I grew up listening to."

O'Leary mixes in some of his original songs with his cover tunes and said he tries to play covers that other musicians don't do, which elicits a lot of good reactions from his listeners.

Margaret Norden, who placed a bill in SWIG's tip can on her way out of Bricks, called O'Leary "very funny and friendly, and I love all of the feel-good oldies he plays. He is so accommodating in trying to play your favorite tunes, and you got to love him because he's Irish."


Joey Gazdak said he's a fan of SWIG because, "He has a varied repertoire. And he also drinks a lot while he sings -- he takes a shot and then drinks a beer -- I don't know how many times he does that while he plays, but he's always in a good mood."

Though O'Leary, 42, started life in San Diego, he began a gradual move south when he lived in Louisville, Ky., for 11 years.

He was in the Army and a volunteer firefighter when he went on spring break to Hilton Head Island and stopped at the fire station to ask for a patch. In addition to the patch, he was given an application; 23 years later, he is still a firefighter but full-time now, serving out of Bluffton, where he is the deputy fire marshal, specializing in public education.

He comes from a musical family. Both of his parents played piano and two of his three siblings are also into music. He picked up a guitar at 11. O'Leary also played trombone in high school as well as drums and keyboards and fondly remembers singing in choir and taking the stage in musicals such as "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Pirates of Penzance."

Though he's played mostly solo gigs in this area during the past two decades, he has occasionally been in some bands or duos, such as The Irish "Muchachos." He played regularly at Hilton Head's Tiki Hut for the better part of 18 years, where a bar back bequeathed him the stage name SWIG -- which stands for Short White Irish Guy.

"'Well, you're short, white, and Irish,'" he recalled the bar back telling him. "'Oh, and you're a guy.' So that's how I got the name. I have him to thank for that."

This year, O'Leary made the decision to stop playing at the Tiki Hut -- which he said was a very tough call to make -- because of the lengthy commute from the horse farm that he and his wife, Barbara, own in Seabrook. He got the much-closer Bricks gig when some fans suggested he audition with a set, and he's been a Friday-night regular since it opened.

"Music is a fun thing to do," he said. "If it was about the money, I wouldn't do it." One of the perks of a regular gig like Bricks, he said, is seeing the regulars who come to hear him. "I get to know what they want to hear, so I'm never surprised by a request and neither are they by what I play."

After so many years of playing in bars, not having an audience's rapt attention.

"I don't really care if people aren't paying attention. Playing is a release for me after a stressful day. And, anyway, if there are 100 people, and 99 of them aren't listening and one is, that's fine with me. I can look at them and get that reaction that I want."

O'Leary said he loves to perform and entertain, adding that "playing out" in public is a sort of therapy for him. But playing out of doors once got him arrested. When he first moved to Hilton Head in 1987, he hadn't yet performed in the area and was seeking inspiration, so he took his guitar out to a dock to learn some songs.

Unfamiliar with the plantation system, he unwittingly chose a private dock, and, worse, the dock of an owner who was fed up with people trespassing on it, so he was arrested.

"Playing led to me spending a few hours in jail," the laid-back musician said with a smile.

Does he still smart from the injustice? "Oh, no. I wrote a song about it," he said. "It's called: 'Beaufort County Lockup.'"