Holland K. Smith interview
As told to Don O.

Here's an Interview with Holland K. Smith which was featured as a cover feature in Southwest Blues Magazine

Holland K. Smith likes to tell it like it is.  Sit and talk with him for just a few minutes, and you'll know just exactly where he stands on any issue you want to discuss, and maybe some you don't want to discuss.  He never pulls his punches and if he knows the definition of politically correct, he chooses to ignore it.  His music is the same way.  It's raw, it's gritty, it's in your face, it's sometimes funny, and it is always heartfelt.  His original songs are as good as any in the business and his playing and singing are among the best in Texas.  And that's saying something.  How he has escaped the clutches of the bigger blues record labels, when lesser talents are ballyhooed as the next coming of Muddy, is yet another mystery in an always mysterious business.  Fortunately, real talent always has staying power and that means Holland K. Smith will be around for a long time to come.  What follows is Holland's story in his own words.

I was born in Fort Worth and grew up in Arlington.  When I was a little kid, church was fun.  My church didn't believe in using instruments so everything we did was acapella.  This was when I was just 5 or 6 years old.  There was a really talented teacher with a music degree, who worked with us kids, and we learned a lot about singing.  It was like professional vocal training.  They taught us the scales and stuff and by the time I was 10 years old I was up in front of the congregation leading the songs.  I was in front of people a lot.  My biggest problem was getting over the butterflies and trying to hold that big heavy hymnal through a whole song without my hand cramping up and dropping it!  I was directing the choir with one hand and trying to hold that big old book open with the other.  

I started listening to blues on a little AM radio around 1968 or 1969.  I was 9 or 10 years old when I was listening to KNOK, KFJZ, and KLIF.  Especially late night when they weren't as strict about playlists and the DJs would really throw some cool stuff out there.  I thought, til I was in my teens, that the bands were actually down there at the radio station playing.  That's how naive I was.  At the same time I was listening to popular music, I was listening to B.B. King and Freddie King on the radio late at night. That was about the only way I could get it being in Arlington, Texas and locked in after 9 o'clock at night.  

I had a buddy who played guitar and his mother ended up getting me a guitar when I was about 9 years old.  I started out doing blues stuff because it was the easiest stuff.  Ironically, I've since learned it is some of the hardest stuff to play.  I started picking up some licks, right off the bat.  Since then, I've always had a guitar around the house.  I started getting serious about it in my early 20's.  I did the rock thing for awhile, but I never really fit in with that.  One of the last rock bands I was in, I still hadn't done any vocals to speak of.  We had a big rift with the lead singer and he left.  It frustrated me because when the voice left, it ruined the band.  I figured since I had been singing in church I should give it a try.  That's where I started singing and playing, which opened up a whole new can of worms compared to what I had been doing up to then.  It's different trying to do two things at once instead of one.  I messed around some more rock bands and ended up getting frustrated after the last one I was in.  The guy with all the equipment decided he wanted to walk away with it.  

I formed my first blues band in about 1990.  After a couple of years that developed into the Terraplane Blues Band.  We were playing the little clubs like The Pennsylvania Pub and The New Bluebird.  We'd been going out to The Bluebird before that and always wanted to get in there.  Before I formed that band I had been following Robert Ealey around and he had been peaking my interest in "The Stuff".  The guys who were hanging around with him were turning me onto some people to watch.  At the same time I had discovered the KNON blues shows and I was keeping my ear to the radio.  That was back when there were late night blues shows that ran all night during the week.  I would sit up until I fell asleep with my cassette recorder taping those KNON blues shows, then I'd wake up to see what I missed. I still have a bunch of those tapes and I pull them out and listen to them periodically.  Now I can identify who is who.  I would pop those tapes in my car and listen to them all week on the way to work and driving around town.

Then, from hanging around with Robert Ealey, I found out about Hash Brown over in Dallas.  He was playing in a little bar called Schooners.  I started going over there.  The first few times I went he didn't know who I was, so I sat and patiently waited and watched all the other players.  I never had the frustration that a lot of players have today.  It didn't bother me that he didn't get me up.  I was content to sit and watch, especially Hash.  I could really learn stuff watching him.  It wasn't all about getting up and showing off.  In fact, I was a bit nervous because a lot of the blues stuff Hash was playing was new to me.  He was always real cool to me.  The first time I got up I did a couple of T-Birds' tunes or something and he would always come over and encourage me.  I knew I sucked.  But he encouraged me anyway and I thought that was real cool.  I've seen him do it to a lot of other guys, since.

I ended up hanging out at Schooners a lot.  Probably way more than I should.  Around that time is when the wife got pissed off and that probably was partially the cause of us splitting up.  I ended up picking up a Monday night gig at Schooners.  Around that same time I saw the ad Richard Chalk had for Topcat Records auditioning for new talent.  I sent in our demo tape and sure enough we had a tune, "Long Tall Texan", picked for their Hot Rhythm and Cool Blues compilation CD.  

A few years later I got a call from Doug Swancy from The Prowlers.  They had been on Bullseye Blues and there had been some problems with their vocalist just before a two week tour up through the Midwest and they needed a vocalist.  That was really my first taste of getting out on the road and doing an organized tour. I'd done some stuff before with the rock bands, but it was really half-assed in comparison.  They didn't keep me as the front guy, but it was a good experience.

I came back and kept on going with my thing and was wanting to move up a bit.  About that time the Prowlers imploded and I picked up Doug Swancy and John Garza from that band and did my first CD, Jungle Jane, with them on Topcat.  We were together for about three years.

In 1995 we had a chance to go over to Asia for some gigs.  That was kind of a fluke deal. I got a call from a chick up in Canada that was involved with some promotion in Thailand. It was just crazy.  I told her we would do it and next thing you know we got a check for 3 plane tickets.  About 2 hours before the plane left, the bass player called and said he couldn't make it.  Swancy said he lost count of the number of times I said "I can't believe he did this!"  All 22 hours on the plane.  We found a bass player in Bangkok, if you can believe it, and we hit the ground running.  He could barely speak English but he knew who B.B. King and Stevie Ray were and he liked the music.  We had a short rehearsal and it worked out just fine. The promoters raised their eyebrows a bit, but we pulled it off.  We did 10 dates over three weeks and had a big crazy time.

One night in Burma we had been up late hitting the pub and were walking back to the hotel.  It was about 3 or 4 in the morning. We were in the middle of nowhere, no one on the street.  We stuck out like sore thumbs.  We were giants compared to all those little people.  On one street corner was this figure sitting in a robe.  It was like something out of Lord of the Rings.  He had a pointed hood and long gnarly-ass cane and was squatting on the curb.  Whatever it was, it was just sitting there chanting this strange little chant.  I don't know if it was a man, woman, or what, but it raised the hair on the back of my neck and we just kept on walking.  We did the Stooges thing, "Let's get outta here!"  I was also approached by a lady-boy in Bangkok.  I was completely tricked.  Right up til "she" spoke with a big bass voice.  Then another "Woo, woo, woo" and away.

Eventually I picked up Kevin Schemerhorn and Eric Matthews and we recorded Walking Heart Attack on Topcat.  It was a few years before I got around to doing my third one.  I had some personal problems myself and also lost a fiance in a tragic accident.  I eventually ended up forming my current band with Jim Milan, Danny Ross, and Philip Law and I think Enough is Enough is the best CD I have done yet.  I dont think I can stress enough what a great bunch of guys I have in this band. These guys are real pros and I'm damn lucky to have them on board.  We are on our way to Europe in February, leaving the 4th  back on the 17th.  This is the first time I have taken a 4 piece band over there but I know with these guys it will go great.  Things are looking good.  I'm also working with a new promoter who is trying to work up some festival dates for us.  Hopefully this summer will be full of fests.  

We played the Blues on the Bay fest last August and it was real cool.  I met the guys from the Hollywood Fats Band, they're now called the Hollywood Flames.  Anson and Sam and the Boys were there, Gary Primich and Juke Logan, we got to meet Tony Dow, Wally from Leave it to Beaver and Michael Valani, the guy who does the Ditech commercials.  He's real cool.  We still talk.  He had our CD out on his yacht in the bay blasting and people were asking who it was.  That's cool.  Now all I need is a swimming pool and a mansion in Beverly Hills, now that I've met all the stars!  

Danny Ross and I payed for this new CD and we're only about half paid off so I won't even consider a new CD till that gets done.  I always have my eye on new stuff, though.  Right now I'm basically just starting to make notes for the next one.  I'll start a folder pretty soon of things that I might do, then I'll cull down an idea for my next CD. It will probably be another year before we get serious about the next one.  I just need to make the money back from this one!  We have a couple of labels interested and hopefully that can develop into a deal.  Pacific Blues is distributing Enough is Enough and they've ordered over 100 units already.  They are getting good hits on their website and they seem to be impressed with us, so I'm hoping maybe they will foot the bill for the next CD.  We're getting some good airplay over in Europe and hopefully we'll sell a lot of CDs over there.

Anson Funderburgh helped produce my first two CDs and he was a lot of help.  I wanted to get him in on the third one, but our schedules just never meshed so I decided to just get it done.  Danny Ross and Jim Milan were great and weren't afraid to tell me when I was flat.  That's what I wanted.  Anson always had great suggestions and actually taught me a lot about producing.  He is also a lot of fun, really funny, and just a lot of fun to hang out with.  Bob Sullivan engineered the second CD and he's a walking encyclopedia, complete with Elvis Presley stories.  He ran the soundboard for the Louisiana Hayride for awhile and Elvis used to borrow his Volkswagen, which was the first one in Louisiana.

I played with Hash in The Browntones the other night and I hope he let's me do more of those.  They are always a lot of fun.  Elliott Sowell, Jeremy Fuller, and Chris Zalez are the the type of folks who are going to carry the torch.  I just had Wanda King sit in on a show and we are toying with the idea of doing some stuff together.  She has so much talent and loads of enthusiasm.  Andrea Dawson is another one who has it together.  There's a lot of kids who come to the jams but most of them fall by the wayside and those few who stick with it are the ones who will carry the torch.  There's not as many young folks showing up at the jams anymore.  It sort of scares me.  At the same time I'm seeing more opportunities come to myself and my band as an artist doing regular gigs.  I think what has been going on the last four or five years is there have been so many bands form out of the jam scene it's just watered everything down.  They think they can go to the jam for a year then turn pro and make a living doing this.  They start booking themselves for nothing and there go the jobs.  Now I think we are starting to see a turnaround because the bar owners are realizing you get what you pay for and the cheap bands don't draw consistently.  The proof is in the pudding.  It's all about selling drinks.  

I was hoping maybe this last year, being the year of the blues, would have gotten the media on the ball.  It doesn't seem to have done it.  I think all it did was convince a bunch of rock guys that they wanted to do blues records.  That's the last thing we needed.  I think there has been a real wave of crap coming out this last year.  That just sort of reinforces what the general public thinks and helps kept the good stuff underground and in a small niche.  Gary Primich told me one time the cream rises to the top. I hope we are finally rising.