I was sitting on one of the benches on Jackson Square, playing with Mickey “Slewfoot” when Kenny Holladay ambled up with his gig bag and said hi to Mickey, all the while eyeing my 1930s wooden-body National.
“How you doing? That’s a nice guitar.”
“You want to check it out?”
Kenny’s reputation as one of the hottest slide guitar players in town had proceeded him. I’d seen him fronting the Big Mess Band on the Square. I was in awe of his talent.
Kenny fished a little mandolin pick out of his pocket, sat down and started messing with my axe. Mickey strummed along. After a few bars, a dollar fell into Mickey’s case. Then another and another. Kenny looked up.
“Well, uh, I guess maybe I should play my own guitar if we got people paying.” Kenny pulled a battered, silver Dobro out of a tattered leather case and started playing again.
“You know how to play a mambo, man?”
“Uh, no.” My first lesson had begun.
This was nearly 20 years ago, when Tuba Fats was still playing the Square. Before retro swing bands were a dime a dozen. Before Frenchmen Street was a big deal. Kenny Holladay helped make that neighborhood a music destination, gigging at Check Point Charlie and the old Dragon’s Den. He played with a lot of bands: Coco Robicheaux, Butch Trivette, Andre Williams—too many to list. He was a mentor to scores of young musicians. Generally content to play locally, Holladay only toured occasionally and with reluctance. He is shamefully under-recorded, but his music touched thousands, and not just in New Orleans.
Kenny grew up in California, where he was given his first guitar by his grandfather. According to a cousin, dyslexia prevented a traditional music education, so he “invented music from scratch.” (Discussing music theory with Kenny was a mind-bending experience.) Kenny had a love for modifying and tinkering with his guitars. It was also a necessity, as his use of heavy-gauge strings and high-tension tunings led to the demise of many an instrument.
During most of the ’80s he lived to Cambridge, Massachusetts, moving to New Orleans at the end of the decade. How and when Kenny developed his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure recordings, or his truly unique style (part piano, part pedal steel?) I do not know. Perhaps he started playing ridiculously fast slide guitar merely to keep up the circulation in his hands while playing in Harvard Square on cold winter nights. (As author/musician Elijah Wald put it, “a million notes a minute—but he always swore he knew what he was hitting and if you could tape it and slow it down it would all make sense.”)
Kenny was irreverent. Garish (if authentic) Hawaiian shirts. Breaking into Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” or Nancy Sinatra’s “Boots” in the middle of a blues set; literally crying, sobbing, moaning an entire blues song till his audience (and band) would laugh so hard they were in tears. But Kenny could play real slow, and he had soul. His versions of “Sleepwalk” and “Rainy Night in Georgia” were show stoppers; and check YouTube for his duet with Andy J. Forest on “As the Years Go Passing By” from their Hogshead Cheese album. Songs like this give you an insight into the man who was more concerned with the welfare of his wife and daughter and his friends than his status and his career.
For the last few years, Kenny had kept a low profile, playing mostly at the tiny Apple Barrel, both with his own outfit and as lead guitarist with the Louisiana Hellbenders. He continued gigging throughout his struggle with cancer, which finally cut him down on the afternoon of Monday, October 31, 2011.
One day, long before I met Kenny, a commercial fisherman and musical hobbyist named Robbie Phillips discovered the diminutive guitarist playing outside the old Coop in Harvard Square; Phillips promptly quit his job and moved to town to play washtub bass with Kenny. In early September 2005, my head reeling, just a few days after evacuating my home in New Orleans, I was answering the phone in my parents’ house in Boston. The voice on the other end was deep, nicotine-inflected, with an alien, Southern Massachusetts accent. “My name is Robbie Phillips. They call me ‘Washtub.’ My friend Kenny told me to look you up.”
Still looking out for me. Bless you brother. Go in peace.
On January 12, there will be a benefit for Holladay’s family at d.b.a. starting at 6 p.m. and going into the night. There will be a second line for Holladay on January 14; watch OffBeat.com for details.