With 30+ years of road-dawg blues in his rearview mirror, Holland K. Smith has seen about everything when it comes to gigs, recordings, and booking agents.
“There’s barely enough money out there to keep artists going,” Smith growls over the phone from Arlington, “but you’ve still got all these people trying to be middlemen between the artists and the venues, and they basically just suck off revenue that touring bands need to put in the gas tank.
“I’ve seen so many clubs who get talked out of doing their own booking by weasels who really bring nothing to the table other than a cell phone and a Rolodex," he continues. "I’d much rather deal straight up with the venues than work through these middlemen. But that’s the nature of the beast it seems.”
Smith, who’s tour schedule is booked far out into the future — he’ll play five gigs in the Houston vicinity in the next eight days — is still just happy to be in such demand after years on the Dallas scene and the wider blues circle.
“We make it a point to make a couple of runs to California and up the coast every year, and that’s paid off well for us,” Smith explains. “We try to keep expanding our range, looking for the right venues and the right promoters outside the regular Texas circuit. You’ve got to grow or die.”
According to Smith, Houston has been a godsend for him and a handful of other Dallas-area bluesers like Jason Elmore, Anson Funderburg, and Jim Suhler.
“In the mid-90s, there were enough gigs around here to play three to five nights a week, make a decent living, and sleep in my own bed every night. Then things just shifted before we noticed.
“Nobody saw it coming, but the blues scene just got messed up,” Smith explains. “It was pretty strong for quite a while and lots of great players developed here. Then this guy Hash Brown, he literally created a little scene by hosting a blues jam somewhere almost every night of the week. You know, it was like all these guys up there doing the Stevie Ray songbook or doing 'Sweet Home, Chicago' or some other blues cliché. It brought a shitload of jammers out who weren’t necessarily full-time pros and, as a result of that, the whole concert scene now is overrun with guys who came out of Hash Brown’s jam scene. Several of the younger guys actually became successful, but the market got totally saturated.
“Guys would come into the jam scene and play for a year or two and then form a band," he adds. "Most of us didn’t see it coming but suddenly there were just too many bands, and of course that hurt the bands that had been together and working a long time because the gigs and money began to be spread over too many bands. Some of the good guys moved to Austin, others — and I mean some real good players — just resigned themselves to the way things are.”
Smith also notes that DFW music writers haven’t reported on local blues musicians they way they do on new indie, Americana and hip-hop artists.
“We have a problem with the same fucking writers who are in place and they just don’t like blues, never wrote about it or cared about it,” says Smith. “They’re all writing about their favorite stupid nonsense bands that are finished in a year. Houston is lucky because it actually has some coverage of the blues still.”
Houston looks pretty good to Smith these days.
“I wouldn’t say Houston has any more blues venues than Dallas-Fort Worth, but there’s more money and more opportunity in Houston," he says. "It took me a couple of years of beating on Tom at Big Easy and the guys at Shake’s but we finally started getting a toehold in Houston, and that’s been really important in the overall picture of how do I make a living at this. And now there are a couple of new Houston area spots, Emmitt’s and the Wildcatter in Katy, so that’s another plus for Houston.”
Smith also notes Houston seems to be somewhat ahead of DFW in new players and new fans coming into the scene.
“You just don’t see many young players coming into it in Dallas right now,” he observes. “And the audience continues to age, whereas in Houston you see a good number of younger people coming into the audience. They may not necessarily be huge blues fans, but I think they see an atmosphere that’s conducive to dancing and a good time and I think lots of people are looking for that. Hopefully they stick around and learn who Freddie King is, learn about Blind Lemon Jefferson and all that Texas blues history, something beyond just Stevie Ray. I think that process is actually happening in Houston, but I don’t really see it in the Dallas area right now.”
Smith comes at his blues honestly, with a set list that is split between covers and originals. For Smith, it’s all about the audience.
“It may not seem like it, but I’m constantly checking the audience for signs of what they want, what’s keeping them there buying drinks rather than leaving,” he laughs. “And let’s face it, I’m supposed to be selling drinks. That’s how the whole blues thing works. So if I see some guy checking his watch or putting on his coat, I try to think ‘what do we play next to keep ’em here?’ It drives me crazy some nights, believe me.”
Smith peppers his sets with obscure covers from early Rolling Stones records and such.
“Nobody is going to stick around to see us play the same eight bars over and over,” he says. “I like a wide mix, even some borderline rock and roll, stuff you can shake your butt to. That’s why I don’t have a set list. I want to respond to the feedback I’m getting from the audience, what their energy level and attitude seem to be telling me to do next.”
Something must be going right for Smith. His label, Ellersoul Records, has just commissioned a successor to Smith’s award-winning 2013 album, Cobalt.
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“They just told me to start getting the songs together, so we’re thinking about pre-production, all the stuff that goes in to making a good record,” he says. “I’ll probably write some of the songs, but I’m also going to scour around for some new material, hopefully from some under the radar writers. I want the next record to have it all — good playing, good singing, and lyrics that are hopefully a cut or two above what I’m hearing on a lot of new blues albums.”
A true blues man with a jones for boogie, big beat, and nasty guitar tone, Smith says he recently lost out on a gig in Houston in favor of an Americana string band from the Midwest.
“What’s up with all this Jed Clampett shit and these phoney hillbilly outfits?” he asks. “I guess some people can get their groove on to that stuff, but it’ll just never happen for me. I’m probably too old and set in my ways, but I just don’t get a lot of this new stuff the younger adults and kids are running towards. For me, it doesn’t have any soul.”
Holland K. Smith performs 9:30 p.m. Saturday, January 2 at The Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club, 5731 Kirby.