by Donovan Wheeler –Photos by Rick Phipps and Eric Meyer
I had planned to write about Paul Holdman: the suave dude in the sleek grey blazer and fedora, sporting golden locks which hang on his head just as a rock-and-roller’s hair should. I had planned to celebrate the man who could knock out the Beatles, ELO, and even the Four Tops with his popular Indy band, The Woomblies. And I’d also planned to hype up the same guitarist who could switch from standard rock chords and play long blues solos for Tad Robinson at the Slippery Noodle, the Jazz Kitchen, or Daddy Jack’s.
—–But this is the thing about playing on stage. The stage turns you into a face, a body, a three-dimensional extension of whatever the crowd gathered around the stage wants you to be. Sometimes, for a lot of guitarists, that sort of superficial adulation, observation, respect, and even love can be intoxicating. We are all inherently social creatures by our nature, and it makes sense that those of us who are capable of getting to the stage would ascend there. No matter what we do, no matter where we excel, we appreciate the compliment and savor the glowing endorsement.
—–Inside of the first five minutes of my conversation with Holdman, however, I realized that I was talking to man who had long ago moved past that, if he was ever there at all. Soft-spoken, self-effacing, and incredibly personable, when Holdman and I began speaking about our mothers our conversation moved quickly from a mutually professional arrangement to an intensely personal, powerfully deep, and profoundly comforting sit-down between friends.
—–While talking about his newest record, an evocative collection of gospel tracks titled In the Hands of God, he mentioned the album’s connection to his mother, named Sharon:
PH: “It all started with a dream…a lot of my songs come from dreams, as cheesy as that sounds. I’m not the kind of guy who can just sit down and write a song. Most people get hit with ideas in the car or the shower, but mine come at night.
—–So, I had this dream where I was singing the chorus of a song—the lead track, ‘Jerusalem’ on the new record—and when I woke up my first thought was, ‘Where did I steal this idea from?’ That’s something you almost always think when a melody or idea hits you: that you had to have picked it up from somebody else.
—–Most of the time when I get an idea, I’ll get up, grab a little mini-cassette recorder I have as well as a notebook, then I’ll get my guitar. Then, while I’m still groggy, I sing my idea, write down some lyrics, and go back to bed. The next day, after breakfast, I’ll go over my notes. Most of the time I’ve come up with crap, and I throw it away, but this time I thought, ‘That’s really cool. I think I can do something with this.’
—–The song ended up being about grief and getting through it…it’s basically a tribute to my mother who passed away in 2000. So that song…that dream…became the jumping-off point for this record, and within the next sixth months I dreamt two more songs…complete: the verses, everything. All I had to do was get up and finish them off.”
DW: What happened to your mother?
PH: “She suffered from intestinal cancer. She survived the first round and lived two more years after that; she was a strong, hard-nosed woman, but then it returned. The doctors tried to talk her out of another round of chemo, but she said, ‘No I’m going to fight this.’
—–The chemo actually killed her. I had a hard time watching her go through chemo. It was just tearing me up seeing how ill that stuff was making her. But I did spend a lot of time with her just talking to her, letting her ramble, and learned more about her than than I ever did when I was growing up with her. If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t spend more time with her during those last months.”
This is the part where the interview/interviewee relationship gets blurred: less than a week before our interview, my brother, father, and I sat in a tiny hospital room south of Greencastle and learned that my own mother was about to fight stage-4 abdominal cancer, the same kind which had taken the life of Holdman’s mother. The professional thing to do would have been to keep that tucked in my emotional pocket and forge on with the interview, but Holdman’s sense of ease and peace as he sat before me washed all of that away.
PH: “What’s your mother’s name?”
PH: “I will pray for her. I will pray for Mary.”
This is the real Paul Holdman, a man with a musical talent borne out of years of practice and hard work, but more importantly a man who believes in the beauty and purpose to life. Given his rural, humble upbringing, it’s probably not surprising that he doesn’t view himself as much more than a servant to his fellow man. But out of a string of small Kentucky towns, Holdman groomed himself for his life behind his guitar.
PH: “Growing up I loved music, and I even went to a Ted Nugent concert when I was a little kid. Furthermore my mom, my brothers, my sisters all had music in the house…a lot of blues, jazz, rock and roll, some gospel…I mean everything.
—–For some reason, I had it in my head that I wanted to be drummer. So I had this little toy drum set my family had bought at a Ben Franklin in Sturgess, KY. Then one night my brother and his buddies came home from a party somewhat wound up and destroyed it. When I got home from school the next day, and saw it was wrecked, well…that pretty much ended the drums dream.”
Years—and another town or two later—pass by, and eventually Holdman’s interest in music resurrects within him. Still determined to play the drums, the young man began hanging out with a friend in Corbin, KY…a friend who happened to own a couple of cheap, beaten up guitars.
PH: “One night Larry was downstairs, arguing with his mother or something like that, and I picked up his guitar and tried to move a couple fingers on the string…after all, I’d watched him do it hundreds of times by then. But, as soon as I touched that guitar, I knew that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
—–I borrowed Larry’s extra guitar and took some lessons from Terry McDonald at Gibson’s Music in Corbin, and for the first lesson he taught me a couple scales. Today, when I give lessons, scales seem like the most boring thing you can learn, but I remember that it was the most exciting thing I’d ever done.”
Unfortunately, just as the young musician was getting a handle on his newfound craft, life stepped in and threw Holdman a snag.
PH: “My step-dad worked for the IRS, so we moved around a lot, and just as my work with the guitar was taking off, he was transferred. Suddenly I had to hand over the guitar to my friend and move to Indianapolis. After a year goes by, I still haven’t replaced the guitar. I would bug my parents and have them take me to music stores so I could at least play what I already knew. By then my dad (because that’s who he was to me) knew I was serious, so he agreed to buy me a guitar and amp if I’d help him paint the house.
—–I said, ‘Give me paint brush right now.’”
DW: So when did things start to get serious for you musically?
PH: “When I was 18-19 years old I landed a teaching gig and a spot in a band, and once things started happening I thought, ‘Maybe I should see where this goes first before I start getting loans to go to college.’ I was only wanting to go to learn music, and I thought, ‘Well, [playing in a band] is probably just as good a way to do it.’ So here it is and twenty-five years have gone by.”
DW: So, you’re playing with this band, and then what happens?
PH: “The band used to play at the Ritz Nightclub, and it was about the only place you could play if you were under 21. I enjoyed that, but I always knew I wanted to get into the blues, and then I landed the job with Bankok Rooster and stayed with them for almost eight years.
—–Later, I auditioned for Larry Crane’s band, not really thinking I’d get the offer or that I’d have to quit Rooster. You have to remember that, for me the idea of playing in more than one band wasn’t something I had thought was possible. Once I landed the gig, I tried my best to play for both. The Larry Crane work lasted about a year, and then I worked my way back to Rooster. But, through Crane’s band I met Jennie DeVoe, and when Crane’s band broke up we agreed that we should get together and try to write some songs, and we’ve been good friends ever since.”
Holdman’s relationship with DeVoe proved critical to his later success not only as an on-stage musician but as an eventual songwriter and recording front-man as well. And, while Holdman had experienced some “garage-level” recording work, it wasn’t until he crossed the Atlantic with DeVoe that he learned that real recording was serious work.
PH: “It’s the only time I’ve been to Europe, and I really enjoyed the experience. Next to the studio is a flat located above a pub, but they were definitely working trips. You’re in the studio from 10:00 in the morning until 7:00 that night with a lunch break somewhere in between. It was really hard work, but that’s the way she likes to do it. She likes to compress it all into one or two weeks. We’ll demo a little bit in her living room before we leave, but we wait until we get there to try to make everything happen.
—–She was one of the first real album projects I’d worked with. There was so much I didn’t know before I got involved in that. For example, I had never really thought about how my guitar sounded outside of my own perspective, and recording in a studio environment like that forces you to pay attention to so many more details.”
DW: Besides DeVoe, you’ve also worked with Gordon Bonham. What’s that like?
PH: “Gordon is a good friend, and he means a lot to me. It’s fun to watch him play because he’s really not like me at all.”
DW: How so?
PH: “Gordon is a stylist. He can play and do anything you want to throw at him, but he chooses to play his style, and as a result, he’s created a sound that’s really his. When you hear Gordon play, it’s a distinctly Gordon sound. I sometimes wish I could be like that, but I’m more of a chameleon: I adapt to the sound I’m playing with at the time.”
PH: “When I’m playing with Tad Robinson, my thought process is, ‘How can I make Tad sound better?’ and when I’m with the band [The Woomblies], I’m thinking the same thing. The trick is that, at the same time, I have to bring my own element to the table so that all the other singers don’t end up sounding like they’re on stage by a karaoke machine singing to canned music.”
DW: When I first learned who you are, I saw you playing with the Woomblies at the Rathskeller (kind of ironic given that you’ve played with Tad in Greencastle dozens of times). How did you land your spot with them?
PH: “I was playing different gigs with Gordon Bonham, when I ran into Phil Pierle. At this time I was getting used to playing in different acts and was learning how to juggle schedules, so I suggested that we should get together and play a few nights. So we would meet at this place in Franklin and just jam. Eventually, we thought it’d be a good idea to add a bass player, then a drummer. But all that time it was little more than a loose, open jam…no rehearsing. We’d pick a song most of us knew, and those who didn’t would hang close and play off of us. The whole experience was never consciously planned, and who knew we’d go on for fifteen years and play with a rock orchestra…but it all started on a whim.”
DW: What’s it like creating something with a band instead of on your own?
PH: “When we create as a band, one of us will bring in a riff or bass line, and then we will improvise and create off of that. If it turns into something great, but if it doesn’t then we drop it and move onto the next idea.”
DW: What about your work on covers?
PH: “But with cover tunes…we’ve got that down to a science. Everyone gets their parts and works on them at home, and we show up ready to go. With the core band, we rarely rehearse. We lay out our set-list for the Rathskeller, or somewhere like that, and everyone shows up ready to play. With the orchestra, however, we do have to get together and make sure the strings work well with what we’re doing. Overall our attitude is that we’re professionals, and we all know we have to be ready when the show starts.”
DW: Now you also work with Severn Records recording artist Tad Robinson. What’s it like to “code-switch” from a rock-based act to a blues singer?
PH: “[Switching genres] is mostly second-nature, and I don’t really think about it. When I joined Bankok Rooster, I remember thinking, ‘I want to be a blues guy…just a blues guy.’ But then, as I went along writing song lyrics here or other ideas there, I realized—and as a result always knew in my heart—that I never was going to be ‘just a blues’ guy at all. Finally, at some point, I settled all of that and told myself, ‘You know, I just want to be a musician.’ I like playing music, and I like learning it all.
—–Of course I like some styles and genres more than others, but I’m a professional, too. My job is to offer something to the team and do what I can to make the band or the group better, and as long as I keep that mind-set, then everything is fine. But as soon as I start thinking, ‘What about me? What about me?’…that’s when things go wrong…and that’s true for any line of work.”
It’s that line of work which has led Paul Holdman to his first vocal release, and as strong of a signature lead as “Jerusalem” is (and it is a strong, strong lead track), the rest of the disc—drawing from the talents of DeVoe, Robinson, Ronnie Earl, and Rebekah Meldrum—is a captivating arrangement of upbeat, inspirational rhythms and melodic, soulful entreaties. In the Hands of God does more than give gospel a mainstream flair, it reminds many why gospel remains relevant, even in these “modern” times.
PH: “Grief is something everyone can relate to…whether it’s losing family members, friends, loved ones…everyone relates to that. A lot of people are close to their parents, but she was my best friend. So losing her was very hard for me.”
Given the depth of Holdman’s perspective, and clarity of inner peace he exuded sitting with me in a small MCL booth in Indy’s Irvington district, I almost hesitated on my last question. But sometimes almost knowing the answer makes the question more tempting:
DW: So, if I put a magic lamp on the table here, and I spot you the first two wishes for personal matters…what’s your professional wish for the third one?
PH: “Well, I know it wouldn’t be what I would have wished for twenty years ago…”
DW: What would have wished for twenty years ago?
PH: “To be ‘more successful.’ I wanted to tour the world. I wanted to play with the big names like Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt. And it’s not that it wouldn’t be great if it were to happen now, but—to be totally honest—if someone like that asked me now to play with them, I would actually have to think about it. First of all, I’d have to think about who they are…what kind of people they are. Then I’d have to think about whether I’d enjoy playing their music.
—–I have a buddy who’s playing with an aging rock star right now, and he tells me that the atmosphere is very business-like, and things get ‘weird’ back stage all the time. Well, to me, I couldn’t do that. Even though he’s making great money and it sounds fun, for me at this stage of my life, I’m more interested in pursuing what I’m doing now. I want this to be even more meaningful and more original. I want to put my own stamp on the world, so to speak, and get a good message across and lift people up rather than bring them down.”
Paul Holdman picked up his first guitar because he enjoyed it, and he plays today for the same reasons. And rather than wistfully staring in the mirror wondering why he never went farther than the Indy music scene, Holdman instead counts his blessings because he’s able to do what he loves, able to live with the people he loves, and he’s also able to offer us hope as well.