There was a time when Chris Holt’s name was often mentioned in this publication. He was frequently nominated (and won) many Dallas Observer Music Awards for his work with Sorta, the Slack, Salim Nourallah and as a solo artist, including the prestigious Musician of the Year. You couldn’t avoid hearing about the talents of this guy. He can play practically any style on any instrument, and he makes it look easy. Yet for the past five years, no new music has materialized from Holt. This year, thankfully, the radio silence is about to be over.
Holt is 42 now, happily married with kids and steadily gigging around town with various acts, including Hard Night’s Day (the long-running Beatles tribute act), Holt and Stockslager (a Simon & Garfunkel tribute act) and his own lengthy solo sets. He’s gearing up to release a 22-song collection called Stargazer, which features a guest spot from legendary Eagles member and Denton native Don Henley and is projected to arrive in 2016 — sometime after he's done touring with Henley. Far and away, it’s the best material he has recorded to date.
He jokes that it's the Chinese Democracy of his output so far. Even though it hasn’t been that long between releases, the wait has been long for Holt’s standards. He self-financed the recordings, which also contributed to why it's taken so long to release the album. In addition to his regular gigging, he was the musical director at Zounds Sounds and later the Dallas location of School of Rock.
When his previous solo record, A Cosmic Joke, came out to some dismissive reviews and didn’t sell well, Holt took things personally. Mixed with trying to keep a band together with practicing, writing, recording and playing shows, the drive to be a solo artist and a band leader waned significantly. He wrote a memoir and screenplay as creative pursuits in the meantime. “I just put music on hold,” he says. “I stopped gigging and writing. My confidence was gone.” In 2012, he realized he had a large backlog of songs. He recorded a few of these songs with Tom Bridwell at Tomcast Studio and did a couple of others with Salim Nourallah at Pleasantry Lane. After the session with Nourallah, Holt got really inspired and took action.
He decided to record at Junius Recording Co. with Lindsay Graham and at Tomcast with Bridwell and Paul Williams. Between fall 2013 and winter 2014, 30 songs were recorded. Save for a few songs, where Bridwell and Chris Carmichael played drums, Holt played almost everything else. One exception was “A Dirty Trick,” which features members of his old prog-pop band Olospo. For everything else, there were layers upon layers of guitars, keyboards, drums and vocals recorded, something Holt has been known to do. “He has a million ideas all the time,” Paul Williams says. “Some were better than the others and I think I could help him mine the gold.”
Holt had wanted to do a double album for years. He considered making A Cosmic Joke into a double album, but was talked out of it. Taking the reigns with Stargazer, he saw an opportunity. “Everybody thought I was completely insane,” Holt says with a laugh. “But it’s been five years. I have a lot of material. I think the material is all good. And I don’t give a shit. We live in an age of distraction and this is a defiant way of saying ‘fuck you’ to the age we live in.”
There is no concept or story to Stargazer, but the there is a pretty consistent lyrical theme: a reflection of getting older and wiser. Furthermore, thinking about what you’ve done with your life and what you’re going to do with it. “Stargazer has a lot more sunlight,” Holt says, contrasting it to the darkness and sadness found on A Cosmic Joke and the second Slack record, The Deep End.
There’s certainly a lot of information and styles of music across the album, and it can be daunting to take in on the first listen. Locally owned State Fair Records has a sensible strategy with how they want to present the album: instead of dropping all 22 songs at once, they will release a string of singles digitally, starting on October 2. All 22 songs will be on vinyl next year. “He wants to do a double record,” Trey Johnson, the label’s co-owner, says. “We signed on to do a double record and that is the plan.” Johnson has worked with Holt on many projects, including time together in the legendary Sorta. “He’s a prolific songwriter and has been for most of his career,” Johnson says. “There’s a lot of love in this record, and I think it works well as a double.”
Johnson is firmly aware of the marketplace, preferring the convenience of digital before deciding to own (or not own) something on a physical format. “Singles are kind of the way people are putting out their music now, for better or for worse,” he says. “What we have now is an opportunity to do both. Our plan is to let people hear Chris’s record in pieces, because it’s a lot of material to digest. If you’re going to hope people have the attention span to listen to the record, giving it to them in pieces just makes sense to me.”
Stargazer strongly builds on Holt’s back catalog, both in a band setting and as a solo act. He openly acknowledges his love of Elton John, Billy Joel, XTC, Todd Rundgren, ELO, the Beatles and the Flaming Lips, among many others. There’s soft acoustic material on “In Disguise,” “Like a Child” and “It’s Not Over Yet,” art power pop on “Face to Face” and “Make My Bed,” glam decadence on “Madelyn (Don’t Cry),” sugary bombast on “First Circle” and the title track, and piano-driven rock of “The Love Parade,” “Albatross” and “Now It’s Dark.”
“I’m Wasted,” a ballad driven by acoustic guitar and piano, is one of the standouts, and it features none other than Don Henley as a special guest vocalist. How Henley got involved is interesting. What happened after the recording session was done slowly led to what Holt will be spending most of the rest of 2015 doing: touring with Henley’s backing band as a rhythm guitarist and banjo player. Henley’s tour includes a stop at the Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie on October 15.
Back when Holt assembled and recorded tracks for Stargazer, he had been referred to Henley via Salim Nourallah as Henley’s son wanted guitar lessons. Soon after meeting for the first time, Henley asked Holt if he would like to lay down a guitar solo on a song called “That Old Flame” with producer Stan Lynch, a former member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as well as a longtime producer of Henley’s solo material. (Coincidentally, the first guitar lick Holt ever learned as a kid was Henley’s “All She Wants to Do is Dance.”) Henley later asked Holt to play a private gathering and at the end of it, Henley offered to perform on a track Holt had been working on. Henley chose “I’m Wasted” and recorded his vocals at Tomcast.
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As Henley gears up to release his new solo record, Cass County, and hit the road, he speaks highly of Holt. “Chris Holt is known as a gifted, versatile guitarist, but he’s also become an excellent singer and songwriter,” Henley says. “Chris’s new album showcases his growth as an artist and I was really pleased that I got to participate. It’s always a pleasure to work with a pro.”
Holt doesn’t hide his excitement about the opportunity to play arenas and theaters. He smiles even more these days. He takes the music seriously, and given how talented he is, he doesn’t have a sense of entitlement about the gigs he plays. He admits it’s nice for someone to hand him a guitar and then start playing a song that the crowd sings along to. He’s met people like Dolly Parton and Bob Seger, as well as Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit from the Eagles. Still, he remains a humble, approachable person.
He’s focusing on the moment and thankful for what he has done as a performer. He’s looking forward to the tour and not the what-ifs when the tour is over. He’s thinking about recording a new Slack record; one that will be short in length and not take years to release. And of course, he’s game for more tour dates with Henley.
“I’m doing what I love now,” he says. “I don’t want to take for granted or miss out on how fun it is to do this.”