Cover photo © 2022 Matthew Zahn
Whether it’s through the music he performs, his production efforts, or by wearing another artist’s shirt for one of his own publicity photos, Harmonica player and singer/songwriter Tony Holiday is often paying tribute to those musicians he respects. Blues Blast Magazine recently had the opportunity to catch up with Holiday through a virtual interview and heard first about his admiration for James Harman.
“The first time I heard James Harman was a time I will never forget. I related to James in a lot of artistic ways, but in my little farming hometown in Utah, you have to work hard to get good live music to come. I ended up taking all the money I made playing shows to fly people like him in so I could see them, and James would stay at my house, that’s how I got to know him. What hooked me was his voice. I’m a huge fan of Bobby “Blue” Bland, and he had a lot of Bobby Bland’s qualities. Not his personality, though. James was grumpy. I misunderstood it at first, but later I feel like I understood it a little bit better, and I came to appreciate his personality too. I was really able to appreciate having him in my life.”
Holiday has also been very vocal about his admiration for harmonica player/singer John Nemeth, and it was Nemeth’s influence that convinced Holiday to move to Memphis three and one-half years ago.
“When I first heard John, I was working in a barbecue shop as a butcher. I wasn’t allowed to come out and see the live music because the boss didn’t want customers to have to see the apron covered with blood. But I had to come out when he played. I heard this very distinctive way of playing harmonica. He is a U-blocker, using his tongue in a ‘U’ shape. But it’s more than that—he had his own style, and then there is his voice. I had been a guitar player at the time, but I sold my guitar that week. That was it. I switched to harmonica after hearing John Nemeth. And he facilitated the move to Memphis. I love Memphis. It’s fantastic. There are a lot of great people here. I’ve made a lot of great friends, and it’s an inspiring place to be.”
(When asked about Holiday, John Nemeth stated “Tony Holiday is a good friend and a helluva talent. Give him a listen!”)
Holiday has been a prolific writer of songs with wide-ranging topics. He has also co-authored songs with artists such as John Nemeth and Ori Naftaly. However, the original song that was the most meaningful to Holiday was written as a tribute to both O.V. Wright and to the people in Michael Ledbetter’s life who miss him.
“It’s written with the same phrasing as OV Wright’s ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Cry,” so it’s a tribute to that song, and I wrote it when Ledbetter passed away. I had been taking vocal lessons from him and his death seemed so random and so heavy. It moved me so much. I knew it would take a lot of time for the people in his life to even grasp it, so I guess I wrote it for them. He was always a very inspiring person.”
When asked about non-original songs that he most likes to cover, Holiday was quick to respond.
“I like songs about notorious women that take great men down and bring them to their knees. In a way they are villains, but in a way, they are super-heroes. I like ‘A Woman Named Trouble’ by Little Sonny, and ‘She’s a Burglar’ which was written by Howard Tate, but I cover it the way Freddie King did. That’s a great song—‘she’s a burglar, she broke into my heart. She broke into my mind.’”
Holiday’s love of the blues started when his mother would bring home CDs from the library. She brought home Bobby “Blue” Bland, BB King and Hound Dog Taylor CDs, which he reported loving, and he also saw characters looking cool on the album covers, making him wish he could hang out with them. His mother then bought him a guitar, hoping it would keep him out of trouble.
In his devotion to the music, Holiday has not only recorded his own CDs, but also completed two compilation CDs with numerous special guests. Both ‘Porch Sessions’ albums were recorded live, on people’s porches. The first volume, which was nominated for a Blues Blast Award, included numerous special guests, including James Harman, John Nemeth, Kid Ramos, Bob Corritore, Charlie Musselwhite, Aki Kumar Kid Ramos, Bobby Rush and many more. Bobby Rush returned as a guest again on the second volume, which also features great artists including Watermelon Slim, Mark Hummel, Ben Rice, A.J. Fullerton, Rae Gordon, Southern Avenue and JD Taylor. Holiday noted that there seems something special about playing music on porches
“I’ve always liked the idea of porches. It’s where family used to get together at the end of the day, especially if they didn’t have air conditioning, because the night would cool you off. You would get to know each other and sing songs together. It was a time everyone looked forward to and they would have their shoulders down. Recording in a studio has always been an uncomfortable thing for me and I think people sometimes prematurely record an album because of how forced it can be. I also liked the idea of Buddy Guy taking a wire out of the screen porch and nailing it down and plucking it as his first instrument. Porches seem like a home base for roots and blues. So, I was on Facebook and I said I record on porches, would anyone let me on theirs, and Kid Andersen answered. He said his porch was famous, and he facilitated me recording Charlie Musselwhite on Andersen’s porch.”
Somewhat unusually for albums with guest artists, Holiday decided not to play on every track featured on Volume Two. His reasoning demonstrates his humility regarding his own talent.
“I didn’t want to record it with any intention of me playing. My intention was to produce recordings that I like, and we have Aki Kumar and Charlie Musselwhite playing on a track, so I wasn’t needed. I didn’t want to squeeze in where it wasn’t necessary. There are no egos on the porch, and no rehearsals. All of those tracks are just ‘fly off the handle’ tracks.”
Holiday is sponsored by German-made Seydel Harmonicas, whose motto is ‘To make inspiring music, there is no need for a big instrument—but a great one!’ He joined an impressive list of artists who are Seydel endorsees, including Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel, Sugar Ray Norcia, and many others. James Cotton was also sponsored by Seydel.
“I’m with Seydel—that’s what I use, mainly the 1847 classic, but then I also use the Marine Band Deluxe by Hohner. I have a wooden mic, and I go through two Fender Bassman amps. That’s my most used rig.”
Like many other musicians, Holiday’s career was significantly impacted by the COVID pandemic. Also, like many others, the circumstances of the pandemic led to some significant changes in his perceptions and values, causing him to re-evaluate his priorities.
“I lost a lot of gigs, a European tour and a Canadian tour, and I have not been able to get momentum back again. I hate to go on about it because I know many people struggled much harder than I did, but it was a huge eye opener. It shook things up for me personally. I don’t play for the same reasons anymore. I don’t play four to five nights on Beale Street. I think I was using my music as a hammer and a nail and I’m using it more as a paintbrush now. After COVID I would rather play a show that is a show than play for people while they are eating. I’d rather it be an event that people come out to see. I’d like to be a part of that.”
Enduring the pandemic also stressed to Holiday that life is short, and that he wanted to spend more time with his wife and three daughters. He noted his admiration for women in general.
“The nights I spend at home are super quality times, creating priceless memories with my daughters. I also have three women involved in my management, and I am extremely grateful to them. Sally Bengtson is from NOLA Blue and Blue Heart, Betsy Brown is from Blind Raccoon and Blue Heart, and my manager is Samantha Muffet. I grew up with seven sisters, so I think I ‘get’ women better than men. I don’t even know if I could raise a son.”
Holiday has recorded two albums on the Vizztone label (co-founded by Bob Margolin and Richard “Rosy” Rosenblatt), and one album on the Blue Heart label. When asked about his vision for his next album, Holiday noted that it is actually already nearly completed.
“AJ Fullerton is a rising star-a really talented hill country artist. I reached out to him and said that I would love to have him on guitar, and he said that he had written ten songs that he would love for me to do. I liked all ten of them. So, we went to Zebra Ranch in Mississippi, and we’ve recorded most of the album already. I imagine it will come out in May. Victor Wainwright and Terrence Grayson are on it, and it’s got some horns on it. Most people say if its hill country you can’t put horns on it, but I don’t really care. No offense to the tradition at all, but I’m not making it to be in the footsteps of everyone who came before us. This sound is like Clarksdale meets Memphis. In addition to the songs written by AJ Fullerton, there are a couple of cool covers of more obscure hill country songs. It was a different approach for me when none of the songs are songs I’ve written. It’s like you’re an actor. You have to go in and perform the parts in your own way, with no pre-set ideas.”
You can learn more about Tony Holiday’s upcoming release, and find out about his tour dates by checking out www.tonyholidaymusic.com