Paying tribute to our roots is a homecoming of sorts. Sam Holt, whose music has traversed a diverse landscape that includes influences ranging from Willie Nelson to Frank Zappa, has never forgotten the man who inspired his artistic journey.
On Thursday at Smith’s Olde Bar, Holt and his band will pay homage to Widespread Panic’s late guitarist, Michael Houser, on the 21st anniversary of his passing. His “Remembering Mikey” show will feature songs written by Houser, as well as originals inspired and influenced by Holt’s time around Widespread Panic as a guitar tech.
Growing up in Nashville, Holt began his career in music as a sound engineer and then guitar tech for Houser. In 2003, with Houser’s encouragement, Holt formed his own band, the Atlanta-based Outformation, and began to write his own music. The band enjoyed a busy schedule for years, playing regularly at many of Atlanta’s best-known venues, and released three albums. He eventually formed the Sam Holt Band, has released his fourth album of original music (Southern Angels) and is now touring nationally.
Smith’s Olde Bar owner Dan Nolen says he was eager to book the show in remembrance of Houser. “Michael was one of the gentlest souls in the business, and I’ve met just about everybody,” says Nolen. “Sam’s also a very gentle soul, and he wants to keep the spirit of Mike alive. He’s doing it for all the right reasons. It’s going to be a great night full of music and good will.”
ArtsATL talked with Sam Holt about Houser’s legacy, his own musical arc and what to expect at the upcoming show.
ArtsATL: What is your connection to Widespread Panic and Mikey Houser?
Sam Holt: I saw them the first time when I was 19, and I became a fan. It was at a time when I was just starting to learn about life and music. I started taping their shows, and I ended up getting a job working for them as the guitar technician for Mike and JB (John Bell). A few years into my tenure, Mike passed away from pancreatic cancer. The last time I saw him, he was telling me what to do with all his equipment, and he said, “I want you to keep this amp. Will you use it?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll use it.” And that kind of spring-boarded me into starting my own band. There’s no denying that he was a huge influence on me personally and musically.
ArtsATL: Why do you think Widespread Panic has had such success?
Holt: It was like lightning in a bottle. They caught that, and I don’t think it was like something they set out to do other than they probably just wanted to play music, write songs and see what would happen. There was something there that I think goes back to their intention of being true and being real and knowing that the music is something bigger than they were. They really were able to have such an impact on people.
ArtsATL: What was special about Mikey?
Holt: There was something so significant about him as an artist. I would hear him play even the first solo of the night and two or three minutes in, he would be doing things that were so incredible. Some guitarists, it would take them an hour to get to that point, but he could just drop it. Just like “boom!” He was understated, but when you listen to his guitar playing, it’s incredible. It’s intense. I think it was just an interesting dichotomy of how intense and incredible a guitar player he was but also how he could also write these beautiful short little pop songs and get 10,000 people singing along.
ArtsATL: How did he connect to the audience like that?
Holt: I can’t put my finger exactly on it. He had a way of expressing himself or just making it go a little longer, just egging people on, like oh my God, the tension is so incredible. And then it would just hit this spot. I don’t know how to articulate it beyond that, but I think it was just that he created a lot of joy and brought joy to the room when he played.
ArtsATL: Where did that joy come from?
Holt: I think, honestly, it’s a higher power. I think it’s out there, and I feel like musicians that can harness that — like it comes through them. It’s not something that they can dial up on demand, but, if they get to that spot and they’re receptive to it and get their egos out of the way, they can tap into something.
ArtsATL: Does this happen when your band is playing?
Holt: Sometimes when we really start playing well or hit those kind of transcendent moments, it’s almost like a wave or a vibe that comes through the whole room, and I just think it’s honestly like a higher power.
ArtsATL: From what I’ve read, Mikey had some really debilitating anxiety. Do you think that had anything to do with his ability to harness that emotion?
Holt: I think some of his guitar playing was a way to express that, like some of those flurries of notes or intensity that he played with was his way of maybe working through some of that. I really do feel heavy emotion is in his stuff.
ArtsATL: Most of your own originals seem to have a theme of survival through hard times and then a great little jam in the middle that’s maybe meant to help cheer us up and get us through. It’s not a genre that I’ve heard before — somewhere at the intersection of country, rock and jam band.
Holt: Yeah, I would agree with that. If someone asks me how to describe my music, I think those are three words that I would definitely use.
ArtsATL: In addition to Houser, who else has influenced your music?
Sam Holt: Toy Caldwell from the Marshall Tucker Band, Frank Zappa, Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels and Ace Frehley, to name a few.
ArtsATL: What can the audience expect to hear at your upcoming show?
Holt: Some of that original music was stuff I always wanted to say to Mikey but never had the chance. And so I’m hoping that when we play those songs, it creates that opportunity somehow for him to hear that. I do have a lot of original music, and, if people want to check it out, that’s cool. If people just want to hear me play Widespread Panic stuff, that’s cool. Life’s short. If we can get some joy and laughter or whatever — just good vibes out of music — then it’s all good.
Shannon Marie Tovey is a freelance music journalist and educator.