Dallas’ Ultimate Working Musician — A Member Of Don Henley’s Band And A Fixture In The Local Scene — On How He Coped When COVID-19 Stopped His Work.
Chris Holt is the kind of guy you’re happy to see scoring gigs and staying busy. And, for more some two decades now, that’s exactly what the Dallas-based guitar wizard has done.
His most high-profile gig has been serving as a backing player for a founding member of The Eagles, but even before joining the Dallas-based Don Henley’s touring band behind the 2015 Cass County album (which also included North Texan Milo Deering), Holt has always been prolific. Beyond his own bands The Slack and Olospo, as well as his work in the Beatles tribute Hard Night’s Day and the acclaimed soul revival outfit Bastards of Soul, Holt has also found the time to release a trio of well-regarded solo records over the years, most recently with his 2016 Stargazer double LP.
Initially, last year looked like it was going to be another action-packed one for Holt. But when the pandemic shut everything down, he had to make some major changes in order to stay financially afloat, creative and happy.
So what does one do to keep the lights on? Well, in Holt’s case, he decided to start streaming marathon-length solo shows on his Facebook page, performing requests all by himself.
Never one to hold back on what he wants to say, we recently caught up with Holt to hear about that pivot he made, and to see how he’s doing now versus last year.
Take me back to January 2020. What were your plans for the year?
2020 looked like it was gonna be a potential game-changer. I was in the middle of a transitional shift, one that had been slowly happening over a year or so. For the previous five years, I’d lived this surreal life of touring the world with Don Henley while building and cultivating all these other projects on the side. When the Eagles started working again, Don thing slowed down a bit, which was a bit of a bummer at first, but it allowed me to focus on some other things.
Some people have mistakenly assumed that I’m in the Eagles’ touring band, but I’m not! I’m actually in Don’s solo band, which has been touring off and on since I started working with him in the early/mid-’10s. I’ve been fortunate, through Don, to play with all of the Eagles at various points — but when they were gearing up to do their big Hotel California tour [in 2020], I didn’t get the call there. I certainly would have loved it — I already know all the guitar parts and vocals! But they have five guitarists; they don’t need me.
So, I’d been working on a variety of other projects: touring with Max Weinberg in his band; touring with Tony Kishman (who does a McCartney act called Live & Let Die); lots of session and local gig work, etc. But, first and foremost, I was writing and recording with Bastards Of Soul.
In January 2020, I played my last public gig for a while with Don in Palm Springs, and the Bastards were rehearsing relentlessly, prepping all of our new material for our debut album release at the Kessler in early February. Everything looked like it was set to pop! 2020 was (hopefully) gonna be the year for the Bastards to break out. We had all the right pieces in place. Things revved up at a steady pace through February and into early March. It was like a train that kept increasing speed — and, then, out of nowhere, brick fuckin’ wall.
When did you decide to start doing virtual shows?
At first, I was just kinda in shock about the whole thing. The first round of gigs got canceled in mid-March, and I was like, “Well, shit, I guess I’m gonna be home for a week or two.” But then, quickly, it became all of March, all of April, all of May.
It slowly began to sink in, like, “Am I gonna have to sell all of my gear? Am I gonna lose my fucking house?” A lot of people were saying, “Oh, it’s fine! We’ll be back to work by June.” But I never really had that optimistic feeling that things would bounce back. I had a very serious concern that this shit was gonna last a long time. And, of course, that’s exactly what happened.
I saw a lot of people starting to do virtual shows in mid-March. My buddy “Big Mike” Richardson did a couple early on and he had a pretty large audience for them. People seemed interested. I knew I had to do something. I’ve done one-man solo shows off and on for decades. I know thousands of songs, I’ve got my catalog of original stuff, and I enjoy just winging it on my own. So I was like, “OK, maybe this is what I need to do! I’ll just start live-streaming free-form solo shows from home!” I pondered it for a couple weeks. I’d never done a livestream, I wasn’t even sure if I knew how to stream properly and dial in the mix. But, around the last week of March, I did my first one, and I’ve never stopped.
In a way, are these virtual shows at all like the ones you once did at the Barley House, where you took requests all the time?
Yes and no. They are definitely request-based, but the current shows are very different. When I played my solo residencies at the Barley House and Lakewood Bar & Grill back in the ’00s, I would just show up with an acoustic guitar and a piano, and improvise my shows. I would try my best to take requests from the crowd, but I’d only do what I wanted to do. I’ve never been willing to play the dancing monkey; I’m way too stubborn. If I don’t like the requests coming my way, I just play what I want, and that isn’t always a crowd-pleasing thing. But that’s how I’ve always rolled. Stubborn to a fault.
So at the Barley shows, I would try to play “Stump Chris” with the crowd. But if they weren’t making me happy, I would just do stripped-down acoustic versions of songs I like, and/or original stuff. The biggest difference is that I never used a loop station or any additional instruments. I had no idea about any of that stuff at the time. It was all real-time requests, simple arrangements and improvised real-time setlists.
My current “All-Request Thursday” show is considerably different, for a variety of reasons. When I first saw a bunch of musicians doing shows online in March of last year, I noticed that they were all following a similar trend — playing acoustically, and interacting a bunch with the people watching. They were, for the most part, carrying on dialogue with the commentators and making it this intimate thing. But I didn’t really want to do that. I thought it felt a little bit awkward from a fan’s perspective — because if you pop on to watch for a minute or two, and then the artist says, “Oh hey, Chris Holt is watching!” then suddenly you feel weird and obligated. And you feel bad if you bail out! I just didn’t wanna make anybody feel that way watching me — like they’re obligated to watch me, or obligated to tip or whatever. I felt like the more you reacted to specific comments in real-time, the more you were obligating someone to keep watching you. And I felt weird about that.
The way it works with my show is, people send me their requests every week, and I put them on the master list, which is about 300 songs or so. And it never really shrinks, because every week, I’ll knock 20-ish songs off, and then I get 30 more requests. So the list never really shrinks. Taking the requests in advance helped me to be a bit better organized with it, but the process changed a lot as the weeks went on. Trying to pick songs randomly from a giant list can be really daunting, so I eventually settled into this rhythm of taking new requests the day before the show, then making a “short list” or priority list the day of the show. I would pick the 40 to 50 that most appealed to me in that moment, but then I’d have to whittle it down to a more reasonable number for the actual show. So a show might include a request that came in the day of the show, or it might be a request that’s been sitting on the list for four months. It’s just whatever I feel like doing.
It’s certainly not for everybody. You’ve got to have a lot of patience to sit and watch me go around the room and layer all these instruments on a song. I’m sure plenty of people tried to watch and were like “fuck this” and bailed. But there’s a really wonderful, loyal (if small) audience that watches every week, and they love the process — trying to guess which song I’m building, playing drinking games, laughing and joking, and then enjoying the finished product when it comes together. We share a lot of laughs at my expense, because it’s often really hard to trigger everything and play/sing this stuff when the time comes to actually perform the song. I stumble and falter quite a bit, and I’m the king of self-deprecation.
In the year since I started, I’ve played nearly 60 shows and over 1,000 different songs. It’s mostly covers, but I also do original stuff when people ask for it. Sometimes I’ll do shows with a specific theme, or all originals, or all songs from a certain year — but mostly it’s just random. Whatever I’m in the mood for, plucked from the request list.
It’s been very therapeutic for both myself and the audience. Really, it’s been a blast for me, and it saved my ass this past year. I’ve made a lot of new friends and re-connected with a lot of old ones. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there doing this kind of thing that are way better at it than I am, and they know how to use their gear more efficiently, and have found a much bigger audience. But what I’m doing works for me. I just keep chugging along with it. This show, for me, has definitely been the silver lining of 2020. And, by some miracle, the tips were so helpful, I was able to survive — even after my wife got laid off from her job of 20 years.
Things are slowly returning to some sense of normalcy; she’s got a new job, and my work phone is starting to ring again. But I’m still doing the Thursday shows, because the people still watch, and above all else, I still have a lot of fun with it. It’s good for my brain — and fingers. And as long as I’m enjoying it, I don’t see any reason to stop. It’s not a show that I can really do anywhere else. It’s unique to my home setup, with the online audience.
What have you been up to when not doing your shows and raising your family?
Well, obviously the majority of the year was spent at home, so it was a lot of movies and shows and board games. We got out and did some hiking and enjoyed nature whenever we could. I was able to work a little; I can do studio work from home, so that’s been cool. Gigs were, of course, non-existent. So it was a whole lotta family time. We were able to do some road trips. We went to Colorado during the summer, and found other ways to do family activities throughout the year to keep from going nuts. The hardest part was having to accept the many cancellations of plans we had for the year — way beyond just my gigs being lost. But we found a way to make it work, and we survived it.
The one other thing that was notable was significant progress with the Bastards Of Soul, despite the odds. At first we were just shell-shocked by our momentum coming to a complete halt, but then we started writing songs in quarantine. We’ve got a lot of writers in the band, and we all started writing on our own. Eventually we had a ton of new songs. Starting in the summer, the core band (myself, Chad Stockslager, Danny Balis and Matt Trimble) started working on new arrangements and rehearsing the new material. Our frontman Chadwick Murray is diabetic and he’s high-risk for COVID, so he wasn’t able to join us for the rehearsals. That was the hardest part. But we’d get the songs together, and bang them into shape. Then we’d send them to him, and he’d work on them at home. Slowly, we started to feel like a band again. And in the fall, we hit the studio. We cut the tracks in a big room where we could distance ourselves, and then Chadwick would come in and do his vocals separately.
We’ve been working on two new albums simultaneously, just recording as many tracks as we can. When the coast is finally clear to return to the live stage, we’re going to have a ton of new product. The wheels are already in motion and we’re making big plans. The band’s sound is evolving quite a bit from the first record. It’s an exciting time. And we’ve got so many writers in the band, the floodgates have opened. It’s become, as George Martin would say, a very “healthy competition”!
I remember listening to The Ticket when Danny Balis told his side of the story of Bastards Of Soul playing a gig where you backed up a member of Kool and the Gang. What do you remember about the gig?
That was kind of a wild gig. Originally, it was supposed to happen back in April, but that got COVID’d. So it was eventually rescheduled as a virtual thing at the Kessler in October. Seemed like a fun thing to do, backing up Skip [Martin] and playing some funky old Kool tunes. Danny’s long had it in his mind that we as a band could be kinda like the Dap Kings of Dallas — still doing our own thing and making our own records, but also functioning as a tight backing band to work with other artists. We want high-profile people to hire us to play on their records! So playing with Skip was a good learning experience for us. I personally have a lot of years under my belt playing as a sideman for artists that can be very meticulous in their craft, but for some of the other guys it was a real eye-opener. There were times where he threw us some curves and we were like, “Whoa, this is not what we expected!” He worked us like a good bandleader does. In the end, it wound up being a very rewarding experience. I thought we killed that gig.
Your 2016 album Stargazer took quite a while to come out, but it was worth the wait. Any plans to record a new album?
Well, thank you! I greatly appreciate the kind words. There’s kind of a long answer there, too. Stargazer took a while to come together mainly because of the time when it was happening. I had just come off doing A Cosmic Joke, and The Slack had just broken up after releasing our final album, The Deep End. I had a ton of songs, but not a lot of motivation to do anything with my own music, so I took a good year or so off from that and focused on other projects. I wrote a touring memoir from the Olospo days, I wrote a screenplay (just to see if I could) and I started doing some other side projects, like the Simon & Garfunkel thing with Chad Stockslager and The Trimbles, which was a short-lived supergroup of Dallas guys. But, by 2013 or so, I was really ready to make another solo album, and I just had so much material, and then Stargazer swelled into a double album. State Fair [Records] was willing to let me put it out on vinyl, as a double, so I was thrilled.
Anyway, my touring life with Don took off right as Stargazer was about to come out, so the label had to push back the release, and when it eventually did come out in 2016, I didn’t really have a lot of opportunity to put together a band or do anything with it. I made the personal decision that my next solo album would be something much simpler — 10 or 11 songs tops, more sparse arrangements, etc. I made a lot of progress in early 2017; this was before the Bastards were really writing our material full-time, and I wasn’t totally focused on doing that yet. After we came back from doing Australia and New Zealand with Don, we had a couple months off before the next US run was schedule, so I took that time to build a little home studio and set it up with a ProTools rig. During that first initial burst of energy, I actually recorded about 24 songs at home — 12 new originals and 12 covers — for a homespun covers project I wanted to do.
When COVID hit, I made a promise to myself that I was gonna get my shit together and finish a new solo album, but with the Thursday shows and family stuff here at home, I just haven’t made a ton of progress. I’ve got a lot of songs. Probably 50 or more that would be contenders. At one point, I started splitting them up into different album ideas, imagining a whole series of solo records that I could make. And I still like that idea, but I’ve gotta do a lot of work to get it off the ground. As I said, I’ve got tons of songs but I still need to write and finish a lot of lyrics. That’s been the biggest holdup, really. And it doesn’t help that I’m working entirely at home, because there are so many distractions. When you’re on the clock at someone’s studio, you’ve gotta have your shit together and be efficient. But at home, you can just kinda ease in at your pace, and if you don’t force yourself to get it done in a timely manner, then nothing gets done.
So that’s where I currently am. I’ve got a whole series of new albums in me, but I need to find the motivation — and the perfect time window — to make it happen. With all that the Bastards are currently working on, plus the fact that gigs are starting to resume a little, it’s been hard to make that extra time. But I’m hopeful. I feel like I’ve still got some good songs in me, and I’d like to get them out there.
As more and more live shows get to happen in front of an audience again, what would you like to do the most as a fan and a guitarist?
Oh, I’d love to get out and see some of my favorite artists again. I actually had a ton of concert tickets in 2020 that got canceled or perpetually rescheduled. I was like, “Oh, great! The first time in forever when I actually made a serious effort to buy more concert tickets in advance, and now they’re all fucking canceled!”
But even more than that, I’m really dying to get back out there and travel, and play on the road. There’s nothing in this world I love more than playing electric guitar with a band and making a big noise. I think it’ll probably happen first for the Bastards because we’ve got new albums on the way, and we’re really hoping to regain some of the momentum we lost last year. But, also, I hope I’ll be able to play some more shows with Don.
That’s been an absolute dream gig, especially for a guitarist. We just did a session together for that Matthew McConaughey virtual charity event last month, and it was great to work with him again. He’s got some Eagles commitments to fulfill first, but hopefully we’ll do some more shows before he decides he’s ready to be done with it all. He’s still got his voice, so hopefully he’ll want to keep doing it a little while longer.
Things are starting to pick up. Max and Tony are calling again, and their calendars are starting to fill up a bit more. And, lastly, I really hope I’ll have a new solo album done by this time next year. Maybe I’ll even put a band together to get out and promote that onstage, even if it’s just a few shows. We’ll see. In the meantime, I keep myself busy. There’s always a new project to brainstorm.
I’m hoping it’ll all return to some sense of normalcy, sooner than later. And, when it does, I guarantee you I won’t take any of it for granted. If I’ve learned one thing from all my career highs and lows, and especially from the past year, nothing lasts forever. Take it all in and enjoy the ride while you can.
Cover photo by Mike Daane.