‘Oh, It Smells Like Door County’: A chat with Pat (McCurdy)

Though singer-songwriter Pat McCurdy is a Milwaukee native, his roots in Door County go deep – he’s been playing solo gigs here since the 1990s and doing road trips up to the peninsula since well before that. This summer, he’ll continue his tradition at Fish Creek’s Cherry Hut, where he’ll take the stage for six shows.

Before those kick off, McCurdy talked with the Peninsula Pulse about his history in Door County and beyond. The conversation has been edited for clarity. 

Sam Watson (SW): How long have you been playing music in Door County?

Pat McCurdy (PM): When I first started out, I used to play the English Inn every Tuesday night for three summers. That was the early ’90s. On and off through the years, I’ve been coming back, and a couple years ago, I started playing at the Cherry Hut.

SW: What brought you up here originally? 

PM: Some friends who had seen me play said, “We’re going to get you to play at the restaurant we worked at [the English Inn.]” It was great, but they were long nights. I lived on the east side of Milwaukee, so it was a four-hour drive home. I’d get home at 5:30 or 6 in the morning. At that point, I used to play Chicago on Mondays, then in the summertime, Door County on Tuesdays, and Milwaukee on Wednesdays every week.

SW: How did you survive that?

PM: Youth. And it was fun. I met hundreds of people up [in Door County] that I still see to this day. [English Inn shows] were the kind of show that didn’t really start until the restaurant was done serving, and a lot of the people who worked at other restaurants and attractions would come to the show. 

Many of them were underage, so right around 1 in the morning, the cops would sometimes come in and make a sweep – then I’d play to kind of an empty room. Now a lot of those people who were at those shows are grown up, with kids of their own, and they’re coming to see me play at the Cherry Hut. 

SW: What keeps you coming up to Door County after so many years? 

PM: The Cherry Hut specifically is such a nice new venue. And it has the kind of audience that I want to play for – smart, worldly enough. I don’t play for people who just stare at their phones for two hours.

SW: Looking through your discography, I see you have some pretty fun song titles: “I Should Have Stayed in Bed,” “Screw You,” “Sex and Beer.” Could you tell me about the inspiration behind one of those titles? 

PM: Well, “Sex and Beer” – that’s my hit. I’ve had hundreds of thousands of streams of that song, and the idea for it came to me when I was listening to NPR. A guy came on doing a sermon, and he said, “St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians …,” and I thought, “That would be a great start to a song, but then in the song, I’ll switch around and talk about sex and beer.” So that’s where that one came from. 

SW: How long has music been your full-time gig? 

PM: All my life. I started out at a time when people could drink when they were 18, so there were gigs everywhere.

SW: About how many shows have you played throughout your career?

PM: I used to do 300 shows a year. I’ll do around 80 shows between Memorial Day and the end of September. 

SW: Does it get old, doing so many shows for so many years? 

PM: There’s lots of improvisation at my shows. In a typical two-hour set, I’ll play 28 songs, but they’re not always the same. I do some of the ones that people expect to hear, but I also improvise around them and make it personal to the audience I’m playing for. Because I don’t have a band, I don’t need to have a certain sound, and I can do any style of music I want. It’s very liberating. I just write my songs and try them out. 

SW: How do you write songs?

PM: I have a guitar on every floor of my home, and during lockdown, I learned to play mandolin and ukulele. So even after all these years, I try to play at least an hour a day on one of those three instruments. And I’m not learning other people’s songs – I’m always just making stuff up.

SW: What are you looking forward to on the peninsula this summer?

PM: There’s a certain woodsy smell you get only in Door County. The guy who works for me, he’s been working for me a long time, and whenever we smell it somewhere else, we say, “Oh, it smells like Door County.” 

Pat McCurdy will play the Cherry Hut, 8813 Hwy 42 in Fish Creek, on June 25, July 9, July 23, Aug. 6, Sept. 3 and Sept. 17, all 4-6:30 pm.