Featured Interview – Shawn Holt

“There’s some good young players out there these days. I got a son named Lil’ Slim and he’s really comin’ on. He’s got his own band and he ain’t playing nothin’ but the blues.”
 – Morris ‘Magic Slim’ Holt – August, 2011.

Music has long been dubbed the universal language.

It’s prowess to soothe savage beasts, calm frayed nerves and inspire the world to dance have long been heralded as a mystical talisman.

Music can also serve as the bridge over some pretty deep chasms, such as a generational gap between a busy father and his teen-aged son.

One of the fastest-rising bluesmen currently on the scene, Shawn ‘Lil’ Slim’ Holt, explains.

“My father used to tour a lot and he would be gone for weeks upon weeks and we really didn’t have much of a relationship because he was never home. Of course, he was my dad, but I didn’t understand his job … you know, I was just a young teen at the time,” Holt said. “Well, this one certain time, when I was 16, he left a guitar and amp sitting at home while he was gone to France for a month. I saw that guitar and amp and figured that if I could learn to play, that would give me and my father something in common and we could gradually have a relationship based on that.”

And that – along with a lot more things a few years down the road – is just precisely what happened.

“I sat in my room and picked up that guitar – with no lessons whatsoever – and would put one of my father’s CDs on and I would learn to play what he was playing on his CDs,” said the Nebraska-based Holt. “And when he came back from his trip, I showed him what I had learned in that short period of time and my father could not believe it. That’s when our relationship started. He sat down and started showing me stuff. He couldn’t believe that I had taught myself – alone in my room – in a month’s time, to play stuff that he was playing. I think I made my father the happiest man in the world when I started playing guitar.”

With his father’s playing serving as a template, Holt could have chosen to venture off into other forms of popular music to jam to – rock, rap or funk … but instead, even though his ears were tuned into what was topping the charts on commercial radio, he remained true to the blues when it came time to pick up the guitar.

“I do love all kinds of music and of course, I listened to rap and hip-hop as a youngster, but I really fell in love with the blues after I started playing guitar,” he said. “I’ve never taken a lesson and I can’t read music, but I can play that (the blues). It’s like it was in me and it just needed to come out.”

It wasn’t too long after that when Shawn Holt began to show up on stage with Magic Slim and The Teardrops. There was always an old adage around the Magic Slim camp that stated you could not become a Teardrop until Magic Slim said you were good enough; family or not. And it wasn’t too long after that when Magic Slim said Lil’ Slim was indeed ‘good enough’ and he became a regular on the bandstand as rhythm guitarist for Magic Slim and The Teardrops. Then, after Magic Slim left this earth way too early in February, 2013, Holt assumed full-time front-man duties for the band. Shawn Holt and The Teardrops issued their first album – Daddy Told Me (Blind Pig) – and have not slowed down to look back for one second since.

“I really don’t have words for how fast last year went by … I think that we’ve been really blessed as a band. We won an award for Best New Artist Debut from Blues Blast and we won the same category from the Blues Foundation (Blues Music Awards). That just shows that there are some true blues fans out there, still. I had no idea that it (the album) would do as well as it did,” Holt said. “We’ve just been working hard, trying to take things one day at a time.”

Don’t expect things to ease off any for Shawn Holt and The Teardrops over the remaining course of 2015, with return trips to France and Denmark, along with another sojourn into the studio to begin work on the follow-up to Daddy Told Me, on the horizon.

Holt doesn’t fault blues fans for thinking of his late, great father when they see him up on the bandstand, fronting The Teardrops. He also realizes that the path he’s chosen to travel will have a certain amount of pressure built in, and he’s fine with that, as well.

“There’s always going to be people that compare – those comparisons will probably always be there. But I’m not here to be compared to my father. My father left this to me. This is what he wanted and this is what I accepted,” he said. “I accepted my role a few years ago when I started touring with him. I realized that this was my destiny. He wanted me to take over when he passed away, just so the legacy could keep going. And to date, I’ve never had a bad review or any negative feedback from any show that we’ve done. I give it my all and my track record speaks for itself.”

Keeping a legacy alive is one thing, but doing that while also trying to forge a name and reputation on your own is another beast entirely. However, as Holt – who also had an extremely talented uncle that was also a member of The Teardrops at one time, Nick Holt – has proven thus far into his young career, it is possible to accomplish both tasks at the same time.

“I love my booking management and Blind Pig Records. They told me straight out, ‘No one’s going to know who you are. You have to keep the familiarity with your father’s music in front of them. You have to let them know who you are by giving them a couple of your father’s songs, first.’ And I don’t have a problem with playing some of my dad’s songs,” he said. “I love paying homage to my father. After all, it is because of him that I’m doing what I’m doing. I love traditional blues, but at the same time, I don’t want to just play my dad’s songs all night. I’m pretty sure on this next CD that they’ll get even more of a taste of who I am.”

Daddy Told Me hits the nail right on the head when reflecting on the above strategy. The disc contains a nice blend of songs penned by Holt – including the title track – along with songs written by his father (“Please Don’t Dog Me” and “Buddy Buddy Friend”), as well as tracks from legends like Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley.

There’s no question that Holt – as a ton of other blues players are – is heavily-influenced by Magic Slim’s guitar playing. Holt and his father share common phrasings, licks and turnarounds in their guitar playing – along with a distain for a bunch of effects pedals – which is really cool. There’s nothing quite like the sound of a guitar played straight through an amp with no coloring to get in the way. Even more impressive, is that not only does Holt not use a flat pick; instead preferring to play with a thumb pick and his fingers –that’s the way he learned to play from the get-go, which is certainly unusual.

“I guess that’s just another amazing gift that I have – I started out playing with my fingers and a thumb pick. Being able to play with my fingers … that Delta picking, I’m able to pick out maybe four or five times as many notes as a guitarist using a flat pick,” he said. “I can pick out five notes with my thumb and four fingers. A lot of people will tell you that’s the hardest way to play guitar, but really, it came really easy to me.”

Holt’s real coming of age as a full-fledged bluesman took place on a stage in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, as Magic Slim and The Teardrops were set to open a show for the iconic Johnny Winter. Just two hours before show-time, Slim became ill and was rushed to the hospital. Instead of finding a last-minute replacement opener, the decision was made for the opening act to go on with Holt taking center-stage as front-man in his ailing father’s steed. And like they say, the rest is history.

“Well, before then, I was there just to support my dad as the rhythm player for The Teardrops. When my father got sick, my whole life changed. He told us … some of his last words to this band were, ‘Shawn’s going to finish the tour, he can do it.’ So I played that one show without my father, because the promoter and Johnny wanted to hear us,” he said. “And we got a standing ovation. Johnny came up and told our management that he wanted us (Shawn leading The Teardrops) to finish the tour. That was it. That’s when my life really started, right then. When somebody like Johnny Winter takes interest in you and says, ‘Wow. This kid is something special,’ that right there was the starting point.”

Just as important as winning over an audience full of people or the magnificent Johnny Winter and his management team, was the way that Holt quickly earned the trust and respect of The Teardrops (Levi William, guitar; Chris Biedron, bass; Brian Jones, drums). Instilled with the belief that young Shawn Holt really was capable of being a front-man, the band has not missed a beat since that trail-by-fire in snowy Pennsylvania. That’s pretty heady stuff, considering that during a fairly-recent 10-year span, Magic Slim and The Teardrops were nominated for BMAs as Blues Band of the Year eight times.

“Those guys let me lead the ship; they let me be the captain and I’ve taken them to land … we’ve reached land,” laughed Holt.

Judging by the reaction when Holt took the stage with The Teardrops in tow at the March 28, 2013 memorial concert held in Chicago for his father – A Night For Magic – true blues lovers wouldn’t cotton for anyone else standing in the larger-than-life Morris Holt’s boots.

Audiences overseas got a glimpse of Shawn Holt last fall as part of the New Generation Blues Tour, a pairing that most definitely left the crowds wanting more at the conclusion of the evening.

“Wow … that was fantastic, just a great learning experience. I was away from home for a month, but being able to play with those players – players of that caliber – was great,” he said. “Wayne Baker Brooks is one of the best at what he does and Russell Jackson is a phenomenal bass player … just a tremendous heartbeat, along with Jerry Porter (drums), who played with my dad many years ago. And then there’s Tasha Taylor; Johnnie Taylor’s daughter. It was just a real treat, man. I was in a foreign country, on stage playing with four people I’ve never played with before and we were all professional enough to make it work. In France, we got rave reviews … they called us a highly-respected band. I look forward to doing that again, sometime soon.”

In the eyes of the blues world, Magic Slim will always be touted as one of the all-time greats, and rightfully so. But in the eyes of Shawn Holt, Magic Slim was also dad, and some of the best times the two spent were talking about life’s lessons, far removed from the bright spotlight of the bandstand. Those are times that Holt will remember forever.

“Me and my father talked a lot towards the end. He realized that he didn’t have that much time left. Something that my father told me more than once was not to worry about the small stuff … always look at the big picture. He said, ‘If you shoot for the moon and miss, at least you made it amongst the stars.’ And that right there stuck with me to this very day,” Holt said. “That’s how I feel. I give it my all, my best, and if I don’t hit something 100-percent, I know that I’ve given it a great run and I have to be happy with the effort. Every time I play a show, I think of my father’s words. That advice really fits into anything you’re doing.”

Just like his father did, Holt largely shrugs off all the trappings and glitter that supposedly go along with so-called fame and fortune. And, just like his father before him, Holt’s mission is really very basic in nature.

“I just want people to be able to say that I’m good. I don’t care about being rich and I don’t care about the fame or making it to Austin City Limits. I mean, it seems like only about one in a thousand bluesmen become very well-known. I just want people to say I’m good and I want them to remember my father,” he said. “I want people to remember how this music has struggled – this dying American art form we call the blues – and how it continues to struggle today. If they can look at me and say that I’m trying to keep the blues alive and preserve this wonderful music, I’ll be satisfied.”

Visit Shawn’s website at http://www.shawnholtandtheteardrops.com/

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine

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