Tony Holiday just released his first single, “It’s Gonna Take Some Time,” from his debut album, Soul Service, but the album’s release-date party has been postponed because of the COVID-19 virus.
For now, the 37-year-old blues harpist says he’s “staying inside, spending time with family. Trying to stay inside and do the thing.”
He’s happy doing “the thing” in Memphis.
Born in South Jordan, Utah, Holiday moved to Memphis about two years ago.
“I love Memphis,” he says. “Absolutely. I had been here. Played Rum Boogie on tour coming through and things like that.
“I know one thing: I was given some advice not to gig in this town when I first got here. Get to know the town instead of just showing up swinging.”
So, he didn’t get out and play clubs right off the bat. He loved all the great music, but, he says, “I was very poor ‘cause I took that advice. I wasn’t gigging. I didn’t have any money.”
He managed to eat. “I found in Memphis you can get two pieces of chicken, beans, and a piece of cornbread for two bucks at the Cash Saver by my house in Midtown at the time.”
He and his music partner, Landon Stone, “found all the great music at Wild Bill’s.”
That was all he needed for a while. “Between good music and cheap Southern food, I fell in love with Memphis right off the bat.”
Growing up in Utah, drawing cartoons and playing football and baseball were his passions. He also liked to listen to music. “I was always captivated by the country songs that my grandparents listened to. Like George Jones. Marty Robbins. Marty Robbins was big. Johnny Paycheck was big. And Willy and Waylon.”
Listening to those songs bring back great memories, Holiday says. “These songs painted big pictures in my head. It was like going into a movie or something. Like going to a little scene in my head when I’d hear these country songs. They were so well written.”
Recordings weren’t scarce at his home. “My mom was a big fan of the library. And she used to bring home music from the library. When I was 12 or 13, she brought home — for whatever reason — a B. B. King and Bobby Bland record. I think it was a B. B. King record and Bobby was just on it. That changed my life. Time stopped. And then all the clocks stopped on the wall.”
Why? “I could never tell you. Music brings a lot of colors to me. I see a lot of colors when I play and listen to it. Whatever it was, I can’t describe that sound when you hear that for the first time. The only thing I can think to describe it is fireworks and a massive color explosion.”
As for King, he says, “I just remember when I heard B. B. King, it was like, man, I could just relate to it a lot. Not the stories. I’ve nothing in common with B. B. King, really, but somehow through his music he finds a place for common ground for you. B. B. King did that. I just felt welcome.”
Holiday’s mom bought a guitar for him when he was 15. “There wasn’t any YouTube or anything. I taught myself. I just listened to records. And playing with them. I started out listening and playing with Doc Watson records.
”It’s funny. My grand pop plays guitar and my dad plays. And whenever we would pick with certain friends, I think some of the country singers would get mad at me for bending the strings, the notes, all crazy. Doc Watson was doing that. What I liked about him so much was he was kind of meeting everybody in the middle of country and blues.”
When he was 24, Holiday began playing guitar in his first band, Blueroot.
Tony Holiday and the Velvetones with Holiday on guitar and vocals was his next group. “We toured the whole country, coast to coast, for five years.”
Putting a name on their music style isn’t easy, Holiday says. “They might call it country blues or blues rock. It wasn’t traditional. Man, we toured a lot. We opened for a lot of people. Willie Nelson. Steve Miller.”
His stage attire fit the part. “I had a kick ass cowboy hat. And mutton chops that grew up from my mustache to my chops like Duane Allman. Slacks and pearl snap shirts. And always cowboy boots back then.”
In addition to touring, Holiday also moved to different places. “I was just skipping around meeting people and checking out different scenes and stuff.”
Another life changer occurred after Holiday had moved back to Utah. “I was basically living at this barbecue place and working there. I was cutting meat and they had live music. This sound came from the stage and I dropped everything. I’ll never forget. I sneaked down the hallway. I had on this apron covered with blood from cutting meat. I was trying to be elusive. Customers were in there. And there was a young clean-shaven John Nemeth singing and playing the harmonica.”
That did it. “The very next day I put my guitar up for sale and I went and bought as many harmónicas as I could get. And that’s where I am now. That was the day the music changed for me. The day I was able to see.”
And, he says, “I knew instantly I could speak through it.”
He bought a bunch of Marine band harmónicas in different keys. He learned to play the harmonica by listening to records and watching Adam Gussow and Ronnie Shellist on YouTube. “Just watching their videos.”
Holiday was signed to Vizztone Records and he put out his first album, Tony Holiday’s Porch Sessions in 2018. In addition to himself and Stone, also included on the critically-acclaimed album, which was nominated for best live recording of the year in 2019 by Blues Blast magazine, are Charlie Musselwhite, Bob Corritore, and John Primer. Holiday wanted to make the record so they could “bring blues back to the porch. It’s a place families used to — at the end of the day — cool off and get to know each other and play music together.
“I play on every track. But I feature those people coast-to-coast, porch-to-porch. That was my first record, really.”
It was Nemeth, who influenced Holiday to move to Memphis. “We were on his porch smoking some cigars and he said, ‘You’ve got to move to Memphis because there’s nothing cooler than a Memphis groove.”
Five months after Holiday moved to Memphis, he met Ori Naftaly of the Southern Avenue band. “He reached out to me. I got a message from him basically, ‘Welcome to Memphis.’ And that he’s watched what I was doing for a while. And if I was into the idea, he’d like to produce me. I said, ‘Yes.’ He was so awesome to work with.”
Naftaly produced Soul Service, which is Holiday’s debut solo album. The album includes a song, “Day Dates Turn into Night Dates,” which Holiday co-wrote with Nemeth.
Holiday and Naftaly co-wrote the single, “It’s Gonna Take Some Time.”
“It’s about this singer that died a couple of years ago, Mike Ledbetter. I had just done a video vocal lesson with him the Sunday before he died. I wrote it for his music partner, Monster Mike Welch, because I knew it was going to take a lot of time for him to get through that.”
The album was set to be released April 24th at 3rd & Court Diner. “Because of the COVID-19, the release got set to July 10th.”
So, how is Holiday spending quarantine? “I’m writing my next album. I’m calling a lot of friends. Doing a lot of video calls with family and friends. Just checking in with everybody.”
And, he says, he’s hanging out with his wife, Camille, and their daughter. “Spending a lot of time playing The Floor is Lava and building forts with my three-year-old, Bonnie Rae Holiday. We play this game where we pretend the floor is lava, so we have to put pillows on the floor and run around. We’re bare-footin' around here.”
Look for the single here.