Featured Music: Wednesday, May 1, 2003
Blues Around the Clock

Enough is never enough\r\nfor hard-working bluesman Holland K. Smith.


It’s been a busy year so far for Holland K. Smith.

In February, the blues guitarist released Enough Is Enough, a disc that represents a big leap forward from his two previous releases on the TopCat label, and he’s been celebrating the event with a flurry of release parties at local clubs. In spite of losing a long-running Wednesday night gig at the Black Dog Tavern, he’s remained a consistent draw on local stages, including high-profile appearances at the annual Krewe of Kowtown Mardi Gras party, the Festival of the Century at Texas Stadium, and the Main Street Arts Festival. Now plans are in the works for a summer tour of Europe, hinging on an anchor gig at the Maastricht Blues Festival in the Netherlands.

As a guitarist, Smith can lay down a line as sparse and simple as Jimmie Vaughan in his Fabulous Thunderbirds days (check out the c.d.’s opening track, “Mean Ol’ Lies”), make his axe swing and swagger like T-Bone Walker, or ignite the strings with a blistering solo that’ll involve heavy tension-and-release. His tone is classic guitar-straight-through-tube-amp, eschewing the SRV-inspired Hendrixisms of so many latter-day blues pretenders. He’s digested the influence of blues guitar archetypes like Walker, Freddie King, and Albert Collins while remaining resolutely His Own Guy.

But it’s as a singer that Smith really shines. His voice, a rough-hewn instrument of real range and power, is finally heard to its best advantage on Enough Is Enough. Of his first two c.d.’s, Smith says, “[TopCat Records] didn’t want to spend any money in the studio. A lot of the vocals [on those records] are scratch tracks.” Only by producing himself (with help from keyboardist Danny Ross) was Smith able to find the time to lay down vocal takes that he felt were up to his live standard.

In terms of material, the new c.d. is a mixed bag, adding some jump blues and ’50s-style R&B items to the usual mix of fast ’n’ slow Texas-via-Chicagoisms. On the slow minor-key blues “Good Mind to Wander,” Kaz Kazanoff’s overdubbed horns help to evoke the wrenching anguish of one of Otis Rush’s classic Cobra sides. A cover of Ernest Tubb’s “As Long as I Live” is done up in the swinging style of Ray Charles’ groundbreaking Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Elsewhere, Smith tackles a couple of Charles’ own tunes — a rollicking R&B number and a gospel-inflected blues track — and a pair of Memphis pianist Rosco Gordon’s distinctive shuffles. The c.d.’s title track, written by Smith and bassist Jim Milan, is propelled by Sonny Boy Williamson’s memorable “Help Me” riff (better known to non-blues aficionados as “Green Onions”).

While he’s been doing the blues thing for 15-odd years now, Smith followed a very circuitous path into the music. As a child growing up in Arlington, he studied piano. It was the era, he recalls, of the Monkees and the Beatles, when young kids were picking up electric guitars and starting rock ’n’ roll bands. When a buddy acquired a shiny new Gibson ES-335 (B.B. King’s signature guitar), Smith decided that the piano wasn’t where it was at and convinced his parents to rent him a cheap acoustic guitar.

The fledgling guitarist’s listening habits were driven by what was on the radio — unlike a lot of blues players, Smith will actually admit to having owned John Denver and Eagles albums — and he wasn’t sure enough of his abilities to join a garage band until the ripe old age of 19. He still professes a liking for heavy-duty country pickers like Glen Campbell and Chet Atkins. Smith remembers taking lessons from Fort Worth guitarist Johnny Red Latham (whose son Jake was a regular at the Wednesday night Black Dog jams until leaving for college in Louisiana last fall) and failing an audition for Rebel, a band led by future Smart Like Einstein frontman and future friend Ed Smith. “We still kid each other about that,” he said.

At age 22, the guitarist finally entered the band wars, playing Southern rock. While he’d never intended to be a vocalist, Smith stepped up to the mic when the wheels came off his first band following its lead singer’s abrupt departure, and he vowed never again to be a sideman. “It was a real traumatic deal losing my band,” he said. “I didn’t want to be reliant on someone else to be able to play music. Now, I never have to stop until I want to.” Smith’s introduction to the blues came via Dallas players like Anson Funderburgh, Mark Pollock, Jim Suhler, and Hash Brown. In turn, Smith has served as a mentor for younger players like Paul Byrd (who, Smith said, arrived on the scene with “long hair, a cowboy hat, and a Stevie Ray guitar strap”) and Chris Zalez (whom he used to refer to as “Little Holland” after “seeing him in clubs playing songs from my c.d.’s”).

Brown provides some harp assistance on Enough Is Enough and recently appeared with Smith on the undercard of a Ridglea Theater bill that was curiously headlined by Dallas bar band Code Blue. For roadwork, Smith plans to rely on the basic band from the c.d.: keyboardist Ross, bassist Milan, and ex-Cold Blue Steel drummer Phillip Law. This requires some creative scheduling, since Milan’s also a mainstay of Doyle Bramhall’s current touring band.

Smith sees the road as the great separator of “the men from the boys.” “Not only are you playing every night,” he said, “but you have to deal with all the other behind-the-scenes aspects like marketing and pre-planning.” This summer’s European jaunt, Smith’s first in two years, will be the fifth time the guitarist has graced stages on the Continent. “I’ve made lots of friends over there on previous trips,” said Smith, “and I’m looking forward to seeing them again as much as I am to playing there.”

In the face of shifting musical fads and trends, Smith remains true to the blues, which he sees as “a long-term investment.” “I just read [Robert Gordon’s] biography of Muddy Waters,” he said, “where it talks about Muddy’s sidemen like Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter trying to update their music. Pretty soon, they fell by the wayside, while Muddy kept going strong, doing his own thing. It’d be easy for me to switch to playing Americana country, but I’m not about to do that.”

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