On a quiet Friday afternoon, Sean Hetrick is taking a break from music.
At his mother-in-law’s home in Annapolis, the solo guitarist and lead singer of Sean Hetrick and the Leftovers sits outside. His indie, alternative band is so popular in the Annapolis-Arnold area that it “transformed” Harvest Wood Grill + Tap in downtown Annapolis, “which wasn’t doing so well before,” says his mother-in-law, Mary Beth Hughes.
But on this day, he’s relaxing, having just returned from a two-week tour in Southeast Asia. He has sunglasses draped over his eyes, a silver, horned-ram necklace falling over his black-and-white striped shirt, and his hair is slicked back.
He lays his arms on the glass bar on the deck, which overlooks a small and sunny inlet dotted with jutting piers and anchored boats on the Chesapeake Bay. He talks about growing up in Arnold, and the migration of carp fish in the bay. Soon the discussion evolves into his life, his music and his passions.
“Anytime I write a song and I use it, it’s for me, but I speak through the song metaphorically so people can get meaning out of it,” he says.
His new album, his third, is slated for release in January. It has become even more emotional and evocative, he says, which stems from the happiness in his life, his family and his music.
“Somewhere along the way, I stopped trying,” he says. “My body and my soul just started pouring my emotion and my feelings into my music.”
His wife, Allyson Hughes-Hetrick, joins him outside, their 2-year-old daughter, Colette, scampering behind her. They discuss their $30,000, four-month project they recently completed: buying an old school bus, “gutting it” and transforming it into a mobile home they currently live out of in Crownsville, and which they will take on the road in January for Hetrick’s national tour. The tour this year he’ll do solo, because there is no room on the bus for the band. Besides, Hetrick says, a lot of the touring does not pull in money; it’s meant to get their name out there, which is less encouraging for some band members.
For Hetrick, a devoted family man who also has an adopted son from Allyson, 9-year-old Kaiden, a mobile home is exactly what he needed for his upcoming tour. The past couple years, he had spent so much time away from his family on tour, or at home working side jobs and gigs all day and night to pull in money, that his wife said they were basically “passing ships” in their lives.
“I spend a lot of time by myself,” she says. “He’s gone pretty much Wednesday to Sunday. When we lived in our townhouse, we never saw each other. But living here has almost changed that.”
Hetrick agrees. “Not one minute can I complain, because this is my dream,” he says. “I’m playing music and making a living on it. And a lot of the times, I’m carrying my gear in and out of a venue and I’m thinking, ‘My God, it’s actually happening. I’m actually doing what I want to do.’”
It hadn’t always been so ambitious or carefree.
Hetrick was born in Rota, Spain, in 1987. He was born as a middle child, with an older brother and younger sister. His father was in the Navy, so he spent a lot of time floating around as a child. He moved to New Jersey when he was 2, and finally Arnold, Maryland, when he was 5. His mother, Jackie Hetrick, says his father “loved music,” which inspired Sean as he grew up listening to artists like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton who his father often played.
“He loved music trivia,” Sean says of his father. “You bring up a name of a band and he practically knows every player of the band and what the names are.”
Hetrick, though, says he first ventured into music when he was 13. He got an “old, beat-up electric guitar” and played with his brother, who had a bass. He went to Broadneck High School and joined his first band, A Different Look, but at this point, he had fallen into a swirling culture of drugs and drinking.
“It was not only just music — it was fashion and art and style and life,” he says. “Once I was inspired by Woodstock, it was a lot more than just music, it was everything around me. And ultimately, it’s how I got involved with drugs and alcohol.”
He dropped out of high school, regretted it, then managed to get his GED. But even as he joined his second band, This is Saints, and took music and general education classes at Anne Arundel Community College, which he never fully completed, he did so through a haze of smoking, drinking and drugs.
He turned to a solo act in his 20s but was continuously descending into a lifestyle peppered with despair, anger and addiction. “It was a mess,” he recalls. “I would forget words in my own songs and live performances, make a fool of myself onstage. It was bad, just really bad.”
July 10, 2013, is a day that Hetrick will always remember. He overdosed on heroin for the third time.
“My dad found me, purple and blue in his house in Arnold,” he says. “They had people in the family, the hospital, saying I wasn’t going to make it. They said, ‘He’s not going to make it out of this coma.’”
Somehow he made it, turned himself in to rehab, and has never looked back. His mother, Jackie, says he had been an “emotional rollercoaster” when he was addicted, and that fateful night she “didn’t know if he was going to make it” because he had tubes hooked up to his mouth, his nose. But now, she says, she’s just proud of where he has come. “It’s the best time in his life right now,” she says.
He met his wife at a rehab center, Hope House, after the overdose. She was overcoming an addictive lifestyle as well. They stayed sober together, more than five years for the both of them, and married in 2015.
Sean Hetrick and the Leftovers formed at the Harvest Wood Grill soon after. Hetrick played solo at the restaurant every Tuesday, becoming an instant hit. He wanted to expand, though, and he teamed up with his best friend, Dan Sadler, a drummer, who eventually recommended Braden Dauer, a violinist, and Jimmy Mumper, a bassist.
After their formation, they transformed the grill and bar into a cultural hub with their mix of folk, indie, rock and garage. “When someone asks me what kind of music I play,” Hetrick says, “I don’t know what to tell them. Alternative is all I can think of, because it alternates between so many different styles.”
At an outdoor concert at Great Frog’s Winery in Annapolis, Hetrick is wearing a jean jacket, black pants and his usual sunglasses. A barn looms behind him as he sits on a stool, holding his guitar and placing his harmonica and microphone closer to his mouth. A few guests stroll under the evening sunshine. Some take seats at the scattered picnic tables before him.
His voice, suave and smooth, begins to fill the air with a sweet tinge. He sings “My Hero” by the Foo Fighters, “Better Together” by Jack Johnson, and then “Unless It’s You,” his biggest hit.
Hetrick’s voice is calm, sonorous, playful and sad at the same time. The crowd, once small, now begins to collect at the tables, loosening up, taking pictures, laughing, rolling like a wave to his music.
The harmony of his guitar, the lull of his voice and the folky sprinkle of the harmonica create a melodic and enchanting air among the stilled, fall evening. His voice is emotional and compassionate and high, yet clear as church bells.
After the first few songs, he introduces himself and thanks the crowd. As Hetrick resumes playing, the crowd seems to find a home.
Mary Beth Hughes, his mother-in-law, says this is a scene she sees often when he plays live. She says that when people listen to his originals, like “Unless It’s You” or “How Did I Get Here,” they think they are listening to hits.
“The crowd is wondering, ‘Where have I heard this before? Where have I heard this hit?’” she says.
Hughes, who works at the Annapolis Maritime Museum as an event coordinator, often books his shows.
Brad Feickert is a manager at the Oz restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, and says Hetrick filled in for another artist one day, and they immediately hit it off.
“He rocks the stage in every place,” Feickert says. “He needs to get signed to a record label, ASAP.”
Hetrick says it’s strange having a following. Some people follow him on tours nationally, and fans play his biggest hits like “Unless It’s You” which was written about his wife.
“People use it for their wedding,” he says, and “people think it’s their song but it’s my wife’s song.”
He laughs at this, though, and knows he’s just glad he can touch people’s hearts with his music.
Home Sweet Home
Hetrick looks out into the bay at his mother-in-law’s house in Annapolis, and admits his life is still not without difficulties. Sometimes he feels burdened by others who have long given up their dreams to make a consistent living. He works side jobs as a freelance housing contractor, but it’s financially hard to fulfill a dream and support a family, of course.
“You’ve gotta make sure you keep that fine line between this is what you love to do [and] making it a career … and you have to continue to love it, and keep it to a point where you enjoy doing it.”
But Sean Hetrick — father, guitarist, husband, freelance contractor and singer-songwriter — isn’t thinking about any of this right now.
He goes into the living room, and replaces his guitar strings. He talks to his wife, his mother-in-law and his daughter. He drives a toy car around the house, causing Colette and the housedog to chase it.
His mother-in-law, at the kitchen counter, asks if he needs to play at a concert in July.
“It’s going to be a huge crowd,” she says. “But you always bring a huge crowd.”
Hetrick laughs. “I don’t know,” he says. “I keep booking random dates in 2019.”
He takes his guitar over to the kitchen area and straddles it. He plays his new song, “Fear,” to applause from his family. Then he takes his daughter to the couch, reading a story to her with goofy character sound effects while she giggles.
Hetrick is taking a break from music. Today, he’s simply doing what he does best: being a father, a husband and a dream-chaser.