Q&A with singer/songwriter Scott Holt

Q&A with singer/songwriter Scott Holt

August 12th, 2011 by Casey Phillips in Chattnow Music

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Tennessee blues singer/songwriter Scott Holt about performing with Buddy Guy and why he's started emphasizing his songwriting over his guitar playing.

CP: You were influenced early on by Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix. When did you first pick up a guitar?

SH: I didn't pick up the guitar seriously until I was 19. The first concert I ever went to my parents took me to see Elvis when I was about 8. That was a big deal for me. When I was 12, I told them I wanted to play guitar. Someone at the music store said I needed to start on piano. That's not what a 12 year old wants to hear, and I couldn't stand it. I said, "Forget it. If that's what I've got to do to play guitar, I don't want to do it."

When I was 18, I heard Jimi Hendrix for the first time, and it was like being exposed to a whole new world. I had no idea there was music like that. I grew up right outside Nashville in the South, so I was familiar with country and gospel through church. I was aware of rock, but I hadn't made the connection.

The Jimi thing threw me for a loop. I went home and said, "I've got to learn to play guitar. I need a Stratocaster, and it's got to be white. I have to play like Jimi Hendrix." (Laughs.)

CP: How old are you now?

SH: I am 40.

CP: If that 18-year-old kid could see you now, do you think he'd feel a similar sense of awe for your playing now as he did for Hendrix and Elvis?

SH: I don't know. It'd be hard for me to answer that because, as a musician and an artist, I'm the most critical person of my playing. When I hear me play, this is not false humility because I know I can play - but I know what's in my head and what I'm intending to do. I hear what's coming out, and a lot of times, those are different things. It's hard for me to divorce myself from that.

CP: Why the blues? What attracted you to the genre?

SH: It's funny. Looking back on it and analyzing it from a musicology perspective, I grew up in it. I lived outside Nashville, and Memphis is two hours away and Muscle Shoals is an hour and a half away. So you're right around all that. All that music is coming through there. All the Nashville guys are influenced by all that stuff. You're getting all that stuff in your DNA anyway.

As I was growing up, I was raised listening to gospel music at church. My mom took me to church every time the doors were open, which was at least three or four times a week. You're learning all the hymnals, and my grandparents were quartet singers, so I was hearing that stuff. The country radio at that time had George Jones and Tammy Wynette and stuff like that on it, which is very much in the same vein as the blues music I was attracted to. Elvis was a catch-all for that, too, and I was a big Elvis fan, so I was getting it from there, too.

When I decided to start playing guitar at 18 and started taking lessons from a guy at 18, he probably didn't mean to say it like this, but he was trying to identify what kind of music I was into, and he said, "You're more of a bluesy player." He was more of a shred guitar player and this was the late '80s/early '90s, so a bluesy player at that point was somebody like Slash. I don't think he meant to drive me straight to Charlie Patton, but that's what he did.

I said, "Alright, I want to go find the blues and figure out what that's about." He told me about Stevie Ray Vaughan, so I found Stevie. I was a big liner note reader, so I looked at the song credits and figured out pretty quick that Stevie wasn't writing his own songs, so I wanted to do know who Eddie Jones was. I tracked that down and realized it was Guitar Slim, so I got a Guitar Slim record.

Now, I had discovered a whole new kind of music that none of my friends knew anything about it. Nobody knew anything about it but me. I was like an archaeologist, digging this stuff up. (Laughs.)

I found Guitar Slim and Charlie Patton and Son House and Robert Johnson, which was a huge one for me. I was digging back and trying to find the roots of it, but I was also finding all these contemporaries of Hendrix's and Stevie's and Buddy's, people like Clapton and Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.

I'd go through and read about them and see who influenced them. I thought, "I like Stevie Ray Vaughan's playing and he says Albert King is his biggest influence, so let me go find Albert King and see what that's like." I sort of inadvertently ended up getting the same influences those guys had because I would hear what they had to say and go find out who gave them that idea in the first place.

Guys like Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and Albert King and Freddie King and B.B. King and Albert Collins solidified that period of learning for me and got it together for me in the early days.

CP: You started playing with Buddy Guy when you were in your late teens. How did you meet him?

SH: I had just started playing guitar, and my dad was working down in Florida. He saw where Buddy and Junior (Wells) were on tour and were coming to the place he was working in. He said, "You should come down. Do you know who Buddy Guy is?" and I said, "Yeah, he's a blues player."

I had just seen this PBS documentary on Louisiana blues musicians - it was just the most random thing - and they did a thing on Buddy and showed that he had this club called The Checkerboard in Chicago. When I was talking to my father and told him I would come down and go to the show, I mentioned that he had that club in Chicago. I said it as an aside, but my dad called the club trying to get a hold of Buddy, who didn't own the club anymore (it was an old documentary).

The guy who did own it had a testy relationship with Buddy, and he was giving out Buddy's home phone number to whoever was calling for him. My dad called Buddy at home and said, "I've got a son who's learning to play guitar. I'd like to bring him to meet you." That's how it started. We went to the show, and my dad didn't tell me anything about [his conversation].

Buddy played his set and went upstairs to the dressing room. My dad said, "Come on. Let's go say hi to him." My eyes were rolling inside my head. My dad talked to Buddy, but I couldn't string three words together for 20 minutes. He said, "Your dad says you want to learn to play guitar, I'm playing at the such-and-such motel. Come by tomorrow and I'll give you a guitar lesson." That's how it went.

I made myself go to his room, and my knees were knocking so loud I probably didn't even have to hit the door. He had twin beds in the room. I sat on one, and he sat on the other. We talked about Sonny Boy [Williamson] and Little Walter. He showed me licks and got me to play some for him. It was just a very, very cool conversation.

I went to their show again that night in Fort Lauderdale. Over the course of the next eight months, I stayed in touch with him. He told me to give him a call anytime. I'd call him periodically, and I'll still do that to this day.

He invited me to come play the very first night his club was open in Chicago. I started coming out and jamming with him. One day, he called me up and said, "I'm getting ready to change the band, would you like to play for me?" I was like, "Yeah." He said, "Well, get a passport and be in Chicago on this date."

I never asked how much I was getting paid, or if I was getting paid, and when I was coming home, or if I was coming home. I left Nashville with a one-way plane ticket, a suitcase, my guitar and my amp. (Laughs.) I was like, "Here we go. Let's see what happens."

He picked me up at the airport, took me to his house and cooked supper for me. He had this killer Muddy Waters box set on vinyl. He got it in Japan; it was everything Muddy had ever recorded. Everybody has a box set these days, but back then, that was a very rare, special thing. He was letting me play records out of that box set, and that's the first time I heard Earl Hooker. That's a real fond memory of mine, sitting at Buddy Guy's house while he's fixing smothered pork chops and I'm saying, "Man, is this Muddy playing slide?" and him saying, "No, that's Earl Hooker. You've got to find him now."

It was very "Karate Kid" like. (Laughs.)

CP: How long did you play with him?

SH: I got with him in October of 1989 and left him in 2000.

CP: How do you feel that relationship with Buddy shaped your approach to music?

SH: Still, to this day, everything I relate to being a musician, at some point, comes through my experience with Buddy. Now, I lead a band and we're on the road with me calling the shots for our thing, and not a day goes by that I don't think, "How would Buddy deal with this? What experience did I see him go through that's like this?"

From a musical standpoint, it's the same thing. A lot of my judgment gets filtered through what I see Buddy do, musically. It's funny, the other day was his birthday, and we were playing a festival somewhere. Sometimes, I'll sit in the bus and watch DVDs before the show. I pulled out an old Buddy Show, one that I played with him in the '90s, and I told my wife, "I realized I was just sitting there with a big grin on my face because his playing just makes me smile."

The humor and energy and aggressiveness of his playing are things I think I got from him more so than anybody else. You can't stand six feet away from a guy for 10 years and not be directly influenced by what he's doing. It's probably such a big influence that I don't even realize it.

CP: Walk name through your foundation of your band. When did you start putting it together and what were you looking for in band mates to perform with?

SH: When I was with Buddy, after the first couple of years, I started getting my feet under me and wanting to make that next step. From the time I got with Buddy, we'd always discussed, "OK, when you have your own band ..." and "When you go out on your own ..." It was always an understood thing that I wasn't going to stay with Buddy forever. I knew that, and he knew that. I was in boot camp; I was being trained.

My first bands were when I went home. I was playing in band with bass, drum and keyboards. We had two guitars, but I wanted to be the guitar player, and I wanted to have bass, keyboard and drums, so I went home and got them. We rehearsed and rehearsed and started playing gigs around town. I'd go out and watch what Buddy did and then go home and repeat it like it was mine. (Laughs.)

For most of the time, I had a band back home, and we'd play when I was off the road. When I left Buddy in 2000, I left when I was on tour with my band. We had just cut my second record, and we were on a little tour supporting that. I was getting ready to have to go back out with Buddy, and my record company at the time was wanting me to tour. We were trying to find a way to make them co-exist, and it was a very difficult idea.

Buddy was at the peak of his career. The Silvertone [Records] thing had just gone through the roof for him. It was getting harder and harder for us to figure out how to make it work. I decided it was time. I called Buddy, and he and I talked about it. He agreed with me and encouraged me to take that shot.

For the next 10 years, I've pretty much tried to figure out who I am and evolve in that. I think it's only been in the last couple of years that I've been able to see it as more than a one-dimensional, blues man, guitar hero type situation, which is what I did for 10 years.

We're branching out more. I've always tried to find the best musicians I can find. The two guys I've got with me right now are fantastic musicians, Danny Banks and Marshall Weaver on bass and drums, respectively. They're incredible, but they come from different backgrounds.

Marshall is a straight-ahead rock drummer, almost a heavy metal drummer. That's not all he can play, but it's what he's into, and that brings a different set of ideas to what I do.

Dan is a great jazz-trained bass player, but he's really into Americana-type stuff, which I'm very much into. It was through him that I've found ways to scratch that George Jones love in me.

I've never gotten over my love of real country music. Even when I was with Buddy, some nights he would give me a song to play, and I'd do "He Stopped Loving Her Today," and Buddy would just love it. He'd go, "Man, you need to do that." (Laughs.) Buddy was trying to talk me out of playing the blues. (Laughs.) I was like, "Come on, man, I want to be a blues guitar player; don't tell me to go play country."

The sound of the band is a lot broader and deeper now. I'm writing more of my own material, and I'm more confident in what I write. I've focused and worked harder on my singing. I'm trying to get everything together, so it's not just about how many notes I can play on guitar or how fast I can play, because there will always be kids coming up who can play faster, more and louder - well, maybe not louder. (Laughs.)

CP: Was it difficult, as a hotshot guitarist, to try and rein in your playing?

SH: Oh yeah. Part of it is a natural progress, I think - at least, it was for me. You go back and listen to your playing, and you're going, "Wow, I sure am playing an awful lot of notes" or "That solo sure is long."

The other thing is that there's a conscious effort you have to do. You constantly have to be revisiting your work to figure out where you are, where you've been and where you want to go next. For me, reining in the guitar playing was more about maturing and understanding that playing a handful of notes will be more powerful than if I just barrage people.

Sometimes, if you're playing guitar, we'll do club gigs for four hours a night, and if you get on stage and hit 90 mph right off the bat and never let off the gas, people can only hear so much of that and then you've lost them. It's the dynamics and the light and shade that keep people interested. That was an important lesson to learn; it just took me a while to learn it.

CP: As you've started to put more emphasis on your songwriting, what kind of philosophy has guided your hand when writing new material?

SH: I'm more confident in what I write. For a long time, I tried to write what I thought was a blues song. It would almost always end up sounding contrived, like a caricature of what real blues is and even what I believe real blues is.

Once I said, "Let's write something that comes just from me without thinking of the genre it belongs in" I started writing songs that weren't just regular, straight-ahead blues riffs with rhyming words over it. It started to mean something to me.

I started writing songs like a song about my dad dying and about relationships. I've been married for almost 20 years now, and we've got an 11-year-old daughter. I've got stuff in my life that I can look at and say, "If this happened, this is how I would feel" or "This happened to me today, I'll write a song about that."

Once I started doing that and stopped worrying if it sounded like "Insert Blues Artist Here," I felt freer and I felt more confident. As an artist, once someone said they liked it and said it sounded good, I was like a dog getting his ear scratched. Pretty soon, I was getting that confidence.

Now, I've gotten to the point where I write stuff and people don't like that. I can live with that, too. From a business side, you can only afford that in short doses. (Laughs.) If you start writing a bunch of stuff they don't like, you should rethink the game plan, but it's one of those things where you've got to decide what you want to do and who you want to be. You've got to stick to your guns and believe in it.

Buddy did that. Buddy has never been anybody but Buddy Guy. I've literally seen people try to change him and imply that if he just did this or that, he would be way more successful or this would happen. I've seen Buddy stick to his guns. Thank god he's Buddy Guy. We need him.

CP: How, if at all, has that shift in focus to songwriting affected your approach to the live show? Has it made it easier for you or the audience to connect with the songs?

SH: Not easier for me, necessarily. The stage stuff isn't hard. If you're having a bad night, maybe, or if your equipment is messed up, it might be hard, but in general, I love playing music and playing live. That can't ever be hard. I tell people all the time that I don't get paid for playing, I get paid to drive the van and being away from home missing my family.

In that sense, it's not harder; it's just more thoughtful. I pay attention more to it, and I'm more aware of trying to reach people and make that connection. I think about Buddy for that, too, and people like B.B. King. Early in my career, I got to sit on the side of a stage for 30 or 40 nights in a row and watch B.B. King work a crowd. This was B.B. in his prime, when he was up and mobile and feeling good. I've seen Junior Wells do that and John Lee Hooker do it. I've watched these guys.

We've done shows with Tony Bennett and Iggy Pop; I've seen a bunch of looks at what is basically the same process. You get on the stage as an artist, and you're facing and audience that is facing you, and you've got to have some kind of communication with them. What does that look like and how does it work?

In a lot of ways, Tony Bennett and Iggy Pop and Buddy Guy are doing exactly the same thing. They're trying to communicate an idea they have or an emotion they have to a large group of people. That's the whole game, in a nutshell: you try and make that connection.

CP: Have these songs you've been writing been hitting the right notes with audiences? Are they resonating with people as you hoped they would?

SH: Well, I hope so. From my standpoint, you have to write songs and perform this stuff and choose other people's songs you believe in and perform them and hope people respond. You try to judge, from song to song, what they're digging and what they're not digging. It's a double-edged sword.

You can't go on stage trying to please everybody, and if you see someone in the third row not clapping, you can't completely shift gears to try and get them.

At the same time, you can't go on stage and plow through a set list that you wrote that afternoon, whether they like it or not. Your job is to entertain them.

There has to be a happy medium. I saw an artist I liked - until I saw them do this - get on stage and obviously have a set list that they were powering through. This was someone with hits, songs that people wanted to hear. People would shout out songs they had written that they would like them to play. The artist was just ignoring them. At one point, he leaned into the mike and said, "Me no speak no English" and kept playing his set list. I thought, "Well, that's a jack ass thing to do," especially with as expensive as tickets can be.

You try to make those connections. You have to believe in yourself that you're doing good work that has value. Past that, you put that out there and hope that the people it touch will find you and respond to it.

CP: In your bio, there's a quote from you saying that, "There have been times, like in the '60s, when music had the power to change the world, so I believe that as an artist I should try to touch people's lives and say something meaningful." Changing the world is a pretty lofty goal. Do you worry you're setting the bar too high?

SH: It shouldn't be.

CP: So you don't worry you're setting the bar too high?

SH: No, this is our world - your world and my world - and we can look at it and see that, "Yeah, there are things that need changing." There are people who are going hungry who don't need to go hungry and people who are suffering who don't need to be suffering.

What's wrong with taking the attitude that, "I'm going to fix this or try to change it?

Maybe we don't. Maybe we don't succeed and blow it and give someone an opportunity to point their finger at you and say, "Ah ha, see? told you it wouldn't work."

One thing I've learned in my vast years of living on this planet is that the main thing is love, followed by respect. There's nothing wrong with those. They get turned into punch lines, and people who believes in those ideals get made fun of, but there's nothing wrong with feeling that way.

I write songs about everyday experiences and real people. If those songs can, in some way, inspire somebody to be kinder to other people or think about something else besides themselves or treat people better, that's all I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to invent a new currency or try to figure out how to create hydroelectric energy. I'm just trying to find a way to make my corner of the garden a little better.

CP: What are you working on now, recording wise?

SH: Actually, we've just completed a new acoustic record that will be really different. "Kudzu" was a departure for me from records I've made in the past, and this record is going to be even more of a departure. It's a two-disc set, and it's loaded with surprises. I'm very excited about it.

We just cut a record full of blues covers. Basically, in two days, we knocked out14 blues covers, as an exercise and for fun. I'm not sure if that will ever come out. There's some interest from some folks in Europe who would like to see it come out. We might release it over there and not over here. I don't know.

I'm starting to plan the follow-up to "Kudzu," which will hopefully come out next summer. We'll start recording on that probably toward the end of the year.

There's a lot. It's time to move forward and get some stuff done. In the last year and a half, I've sort of hit a creative jolt, and I feel like writing and recording and singing - more so than I have in a while. I'm excited; I want to take advantage of it.