Ericson Holt

99 Degrees will be released via Conch Town Records on August 20, 2021

Though his music is often steeped in the blues, it’s the gray areas that fascinate  Ericson Holt the most. 

“There are very few moments in this life that are purely good or bad,” Holt reflects. “There’s always some kind of dichotomy going on, some kind of complication, both in our character and our experience. How do we navigate our inner and outer lives, deal with the friction, and still find the joy and love that we all long for?” 

With his captivating new album, “99 Degrees,” Holt shines a light on those  complications, exploring the almosts and the in-betweens, the missed chances and the could-have-beens, the close calls and the never-quites. The characters here contain multitudes, walking a fine line between hope and desperation as they navigate a world that seems perpetually stacked against them. The music is similarly rich and nuanced to match, drawing on everything from 70’s AM rock and soulful folk to raucous boogie woogie and second line funk. Holt cut the majority of the album in just two days with an all-star band of Nashville heavyweights (many of whom he knew from his own work as a first-call session player and sideman), and finished it in Key West and London. The result is a collection of raw, spontaneous, organic performances that breathe life into everyday folks living on the margins, ordinary men and women struggling to get by, stay in love, and find a little bit of light in the darkness. 

“There are songs, like “Help Us Now,” that I write somewhat deliberately, to tell a story, and at other times the songs seem to come out of my subconscious and write themselves,” Holt  says. “Ultimately, of course, there’s a part of me and my story in every one of these characters.” 

Holt’s story begins in Virginia, where he inherited a passion for literature and a wide ranging musical appetite from his mother: songwriter, poet, and novelist A.H. Holt. He picked up the piano on his own at first, later studying classically, until songs, songs of all kinds, pop, folk, rock, blues, and country, captured his imagination. He added guitar to his repertoire with a little help from his cousin, a gifted Chet Atkins style player, who taught him the Nashville  number system of writing out chord charts. Holt started his professional career singing harmony and playing harmonica with folk singers in coffee houses and playing piano in church basements, eventually touring up and down the East Coast with his own band and as a solo artist. Even while touring, he still found time to attend Virginia Commonwealth University as a music major for a year. “I’d often be playing a club in North Carolina and have to drive back through the night to drag myself into class by 9am the next morning, but it was an invaluable learning experience.” 

“When I moved to Nashville, I had some road tested songs that I was pretty serious about, but the mainstream establishment wasn’t looking for the kind of blues and rock influenced material I was doing,” Holt explains. “At least for me, they were more interested in what we later came to call “deliberately dumb songs.” I naturally gravitated to the Americana community. My ambition was to be a singer-songwriter first and foremost, but I realized that if I was going to survive in a town so full of talent, then I was going to have to hunker down, hone my chops, and become the best player I could as well.” 

Holt’s hard work paid off when he landed his first big gig touring with rising country star Lari White who was looking for someone who could play the New Orleans and gospel style of piano that Bill Payne of Little Feat fame had played on her Rodney Crowell produced first record. From there, his career as a sideman and studio musician began to snowball, and in the years to come, he would take the stage everywhere from Bonnaroo and “The Tonight Show” to Royal Albert Hall and Red Rocks, performing alongside the likes of The Mavericks, Allison Moorer, Mike Farris, Jim Lauderdale, Rodney Crowell and  Delbert McClinton, among others.  He was also the music director for the late Billy Block’s “Western Beat” weekly radio show from The Exit In.

“Whenever I play with other people, I approach that role from a singer-songwriter’s perspective,”  Holt says. “I’ve never wanted to just execute as a technician, I strive to connect with the material emotionally, and that became my strong point in Nashville.”

It also became a critical element of what Holt looked for when assembling the band  for his acclaimed 2004 solo debut, “The Blue Side.” Praised by The Tennessean as  merging “moments of barroom rock with Jackson Browne-esque brushes of cool,” the  record established Holt as a formidable artist in his own right, with songs from the  collection cracking the Top 30 on the Americana Radio Chart and reaching #4 on The  Roots Rock Report. He followed it up in 2016 with the similarly lauded “Broken  Beauty,” written and recorded in Key West, as well as Chicago and Nashville. 

“I decided to go spend a winter down in Florida to write and play,” Holt recalls. “Nashville kind of shuts down during that time anyway. Once I got settled in, I started finding my voice and feeling more like myself again, so I just never left. Living in Key West, I’ve been able to reconnect with the fire that drew me to music in the first place.” 

It was that fire that caught the attention of Florida label Conch Town Music, who  approached Holt about recording a third studio album. While “Broken Beauty” had  been recorded over the course of several years, Holt knew that his next project needed to be something different, something that captured the excitement and intensity of his live shows. So, when it came time to begin work on “99 Degrees”, he assembled a core band that included multi-Grammy Award-winning engineer and organist Kevin McKendree (Delbert McClinton,  Buddy Guy, Brian Setzer), guitarist Joe McMahan (Allison Moorer, Kevin Gordon, Hayes Carll, Webb Wilder), bassist Dave Santos (The Neville Brothers, John Fogerty, Bob  Seger), and drummer Kenneth Blevins (John Prine, John Hiatt). 

“Since I was producing, and I had no intention of compromising the music in any way, I needed to stack the deck. So, I stacked this one with some of the deepest, most soulful, musicians and artists that anyone will ever hear or have the pleasure of working with.”

“I booked a couple of days for us at Kevin’s legendary studio, The Rock House, in  Franklin, TN,” says Holt. “Kevin and I co-produced my first album, ‘The Blue Side,’ together. He and most of the other players were old friends and/or bandmates of mine, and that’s why the majority of the basic tracks on this album are first or second takes with me on piano or acoustic guitar leading the band through the tunes. I like records where you can hear the guys listening to each other and reacting and discovering the music in real time. There’s an immediacy and a freshness that comes with it that you just can’t fake.” 

That immediacy is the heart and soul of “99 Degrees,” which radiates gritty energy and passion at every turn. Lead single “Walkin’ on Bourbon Street” sets the stage, morphing from a bluesy musical history lesson into an ecstatic celebration fueled by punchy horns, intoxicating rhythms, and soulful backing vocals from gospel stalwarts The  McCrary Sisters, who appear throughout the record. Like much of Holt’s catalog, the song is steeped in a sense of place and imbued with longing and desire; the narrator wants to party, but he is not just another carefree reveler. He’s on a musical pilgrimage. He sings “I’ve got to get back down where my soul keeps goin’” and pleads with his lover to “come back with me one more time.” Such a need for human connection is a recurring theme on the album, and it’s one that Holt examines from a number of angles. In “Empty Without A Secret,” for instance, a suspicious lover admits that “I’m just a restless soul the same as you are.” In the bluesy, comical, Leon Russell influenced “Clever Girl” Holt sings, “I’ve forgotten how to cry, but it’ll come back to me.” 

Holt’s characters know where they stand on the social and economic ladder, and for some, the American Dream is more like a mirage. The brooding, prayerful, “Help Us Now” inspired by the Judith Richards novel “Thelonius Rising”,  looks at the way the nation turned its back on New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of a young boy living in the 9th ward. In the soaring “Beautiful World,” the narrator deals with nationalism and religion, promising that we “will never lead lives of quiet desperation, anger, hurt, and pride … longing for the other side …”  The Warren Zevon-esque “Walking In Our Sleep” shouts “So high and so proud, you get to steal, we get to plow” … ”They told us a lie and called it history,” he sings. “They cheated us blind, but we just couldn’t see.” 

“I’ve not really been much of an activist,” Holt explains, more of an advocate for fairness and equal opportunity. But, it’s undeniable that there’s a power structure in our country, and in our ‘Beautiful World’, that perpetuates economic disparity and everything else that goes along with it. There’s a culture of fear, intimidation, and marginalization that’s meant to maintain the status quo, which just isn’t working for so many people. We have to find a better way forward.” 

Yet, rather than allowing his characters to wallow in heartbreak or bitterness, Holt insists on celebrating their resilience, their unwavering ability to find hope, beauty, and meaning in their lives. Perhaps no song embodies that notion better than the sweltering title track, which feels more than just a little autobiographical given Holt’s own journey. “I was freezing on those city streets chasing someone else’s hopes and dreams,” he sings, “while my soul was waiting in the sweet sunshine.” 

“So good to feel the sun on my face.  Oh Lord, almost home.” 

With “99 Degrees”, Ericson Holt isn’t just chasing dreams, he’s living them.