Making a Scene Presents an Interview with Tony Holiday
Not only does he enjoy the cozy informality of making music on them, he’s done some outstanding recording on those porches too. Studios simply aren’t a necessity for the blues harmonica wailer when he’s ready to lay some sounds down for posterity. He just meets his friends on their front porches, sets up his portable recording equipment, and gets down to business without the constraints of being inside a professional studio environment. And he has some pretty impressive friends, too.
“Alan Lomax was a big inspiration of mine,” says Tony. “I grew up on bluegrass music. I grew up with a lot of porch pickers. When I heard that story of Buddy Guy taking a piece of wire out of a screen door and nailing it to the porch and plucking on it, that was his first little idea to play music. And I realized, ‘Wow, the blues is really back on the porch too!’ The porch is kind of the place where families used to go to cool off at the end of the day, get to know each other, play music together.”
Not long before the pandemic brought everything to a crunching halt, Tony visited a cross-section of his network of blues friends and made the exciting recordings showcased on Tony Holiday’s Porch Sessions, Vol. 2, his new all-star CD on Blue Heart Records. Blues veterans that include gritty Chicago belter Willie Buck, harpist Richard “Rip Lee” Pryor (son of the legendary Snooky Pryor), the impossible-to-categorize Watermelon Slim, and West Coast harp ace Mark Hummel are each spotlighted on a song apiece. So are next-generation standouts Jon Lawton, Ben Rice, A.J. Fullerton, Rae Gordon, the acclaimed band Southern Avenue, and harpist JD Taylor, who co-produced the set with Holiday.
Only one performer has the distinct honor of having two songs on the disc: the legendary Bobby Rush. Full disclosure: his recordings weren’t done on his front porch, and a boisterous crowd was on hand for the proceedings.
“I facilitated that through Barbara Newman, the former president of the Blues Foundation,” says Tony. “They were celebrating Bobby for something that I can’t recall now, some big thing he did. Anyway, she knew about the porch sessions, and she had come to one and when that was going on, she said, ‘Why don’t you come down? We’re going to do this on the front stoop of the Blues Foundation!’ And it ended up being too rainy or windy, so we moved it inside. A lot of people came to see him, so that was kind of a special one.”
Porch Sessions Vol. 2 also features the perpetually amazing Windy City guitarist Lurrie Bell, who contributes a compelling revival of “Every Day I Have The Blues.” “He came to Memphis to receive an award at the BMAs, so I caught him while he was in town,” remembers Holiday. “Lurrie was great. He had Mark Hummel on harmonica.” Tony plays harp on the album too, but only sparingly. “I’m on a handful of tracks,” he says. “I’m on ‘She’s Tough’ with Victor Wainwright, ‘Bad Bad Girl’ with Johnny Burgin. A lot of times, there were harmonica players already there.”
One beloved performer on the album remains especially close to Holiday’s heart: harmonica wizard James Harman, who passed away on May 23. “He was my mentor and my friend,” says Tony, who raised $50,000 for James when he fell ill with cancer. “He meant a lot to me, man. The album is dedicated to him.” Harman’s “Going To Court 2” stands as one of the many highlights on Porch Sessions Vol. 2.
As the title implies, Tony’s new CD is a follow-up to his 2019 CD Porch Sessions for Vizztone, which was nominated for a Blues Blast Award in the Live Album category. That release also found Holiday surrounded by a highly impressive cadre of blues talent; in addition to Harman, guitarists John Primer and Kid Ramos and harpists Charlie Musselwhite, John Nemeth, Mitch Kashmar, and Bob Corritore were among its featured stars.
“The first volume, I was on most of the tracks. This one, I didn’t see the importance of me playing on every track,” notes Holiday. “I’ve just been traveling around the country the last five years or so, recording bluesmen and women on their porches. It didn’t end with the first volume. It just had more life in it. The project had more life, so we kept going.”
In between the two Porch Sessions collections, Holiday released Soul Service, a more conventionally recorded album featuring Tony as its sole front man that was done at Zebra Ranch in Coldwater, Mississippi (he calls that 2020 Vizztone CD “my pandemic record”). “I used some of John Nemeth’s band,” says Tony. “I had my own band, and John Nemeth helped me. We wrote a song together, and then Ori Naftaly from Southern Avenue actually reached out to me and he produced me. Ori has been such a big supporter, and very humble, and helped me.” Nemeth has been crucial to Tony’s musical development over the years. First off, he inadvertently inspired Holiday to switch instruments when Tony was still living in his original hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah and playing guitar. “I didn’t start playing the harmonica until I was 29,” he reveals.
“I was washing dishes in a barbecue joint, and I really wasn’t playing live. This was when I was about 25. John Nemeth came through town. I’d never heard—well, I’d seen his pictures around. Anyway, I just remember the sound coming through. And I’m a butcher over there at the barbecue shop, so my apron has blood on it. I’m not really supposed to come out into the area where they’re playing music, but I couldn’t help it. So I kind of walked down the hall and peeked my head around the corner to see what that sound was. And it was him playing the harmonica. You know, I sold my guitar the next day. I’ve never played it since.”
Just as importantly, Nemeth swayed Holiday and his guitarist, Landon Stone, to relocate to Memphis in 2018. “Memphis is a super-magical town,” says Tony. “I never even considered it. I never thought I could. I never thought I would be allowed. I don’t know what it takes for you to be welcomed to Memphis, but John Nemeth was always so kind about having us stop by his house when we passed through town, and while we were on the porch one night, he was just sitting there smoking cigars and drinking brandy. He told us that we really should move here. It’s such a great town. And he kind of convinced us to make the move, so we pulled the trigger.” When he was 13, Tony’s mother introduced him to a Best of B.B. King CD that provided him with his entrée to the blues. “She used to go to the library a lot, and she’d bring home music,” says Holiday. “I just popped it in, and then that’s when everything kind of changed.” At 16, Tony got his first guitar. “My mom bought it for me to keep me out of trouble, and it didn’t work. So five years later, after I got out of trouble, I started playing a little bit in my early 20s. I joined a band. I was just the guitar player in a band at first. And then when that band broke up, I didn’t want to quit. I just started my own. That was a band called Blue Root. Jordan Young, he just placed third place on The Voice, him and I started that band.” Tony also played with a band called the Velvetones in Salt Lake City.
Even at the height of the pandemic, Tony found a way to keep the porch vibe happening. “I was doing virtual porch sessions,” he says. Now that things are opening back up, his itinerary looks a lot more like it used to. “I was playing Beale Street a lot before the pandemic. Then during the pandemic, I kind of rearranged my show, took a step back. So I haven’t been eager to book any local stuff. I’m still working on my new show right now,” he says. “I have a band in Memphis called the Soul Service. I just travel under my name right now. I’m not on tour with that band. I’m on tour with several bands, just pickup bands.”
Whether he’s making recordings on someone’s front porch, lighting up Beale Street with his own band, or bringing his soulful vocals and blazing harmonica to destinations nationwide, Tony Holiday remains a dedicated blues disciple.
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