Shawn Holt would regularly ask his father – the Chicago-blues legend Magic Slim – when he could become a member of his backing band, the Teardrops.
“Every chance I got, I was asking him if I could play with him,” Holt said in a recent phone interview promoting his July 1 appearance at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. “He’d always say, ‘You’ve got to be ready. You ain’t ready yet.’ I honestly stood by and watched the band for like 15 years. I watched the Teardrops. Studied how it’s supposed to be done. .. And he finally gave me a shot.”
That shot has led to the singer/songwriter/guitarist leading his father’s band – now known as Shawn Holt & the Teardrops – under challenging circumstances. But let’s back up a bit.
Holt, now 37 years old, started down this path as a teenager, when his father was away from home for a long tour. “I was 14 years old,” Holt said. “I grabbed one of his guitars out of the closet and started playing to one of his CDs. And when he came back, I showed him what I’d learned, and he couldn’t believe it. I put five years of guitar into like two months. ... His eyes lit up. He figured that I had a gift.”
But two decades passed before Holt would become an official Teardrop. He occasionally played with his father, and he led his own group in Nebraska – the Lil’ Slim Blues Band – that made it to the semifinals of the International Blues Challenge in 2012. “Then I figured out: Wow, maybe this is what I should be doing.”
Until that point, he said, “I didn’t know if I had what it takes to make it in ... the music business. ... You’ve got to be really dedicated. You can’t just get into the music business thinking, ‘I’m going to be rich overnight.’ ’Cause that’s just naïve. That won’t happen. So I had doubts if I had what it takes to be a traveling musician.”
But in 2012, Magic Slim invited his son to join the Teardrops as his sideman. And in early 2013, the bandleader gave hints to his family that he was nearing the end.
“Before we even left to go on the tour with Johnny Winter, my father told my mother, ‘I might not make it back,’” Holt said. “He just didn’t feel well. And I could tell by the way he would talk to me, kind of leading up to that departure. ... He was telling me how everything happens for a reason. ...
“His plan was: He didn’t want me to be his sideman. He told me he wanted me to take his spot when he’s done. So all these years I was wanting to be a Teardrop. [But] my father had it in his mind and his plan that when he passed on, I was going to continue it. He said I was too good to be a sideman.”
The day of a show in Pennsylvania in January 2013, Magic Slim fell ill, and Holt was forced into the spotlight. “I was in shock,” he said. “We had just admitted him to the hospital. We went straight to the show after that. And we did it as a three-piece; I didn’t even have another guitar player. ... The blues gods took over, and the crowd loved it. I just played my heart out. People accepted it and appreciated it.”
Magic Slim died on February 21, but he had made his wishes known to Holt and the Teardrops: “Shawn can do it. Let Shawn do it. Listen to Shawn.” So the band finished the Johnny Winter tour with Shawn Holt front and center.
And after the second or third show, Holt said, “I started getting more comfortable with it, and the band started getting comfortable with me leading them.”
It was clear early, Holt said, that this would be a new band: “Of course I can sit down and play Magic Slim songs all day. ... But they [the other members of the band] liked it more when I played Shawn Holt. ... At first I was kind of leery about throwing Shawn Holt out there. It seemed like everybody was expecting Magic Slim. ... After a while, I had to show people I’m not a Magic Slim cover band.”
He did that with the release later in 2013 of Daddy Told Me, which put five Holt originals alongside a few of his father’s songs and some covers. (That mix is similar to what audiences can expect at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival.) As ChicagoBluesGuide.com wrote, “He sounds just like a chip off the old block. His guitar tone is fat, raw and unadulterated. He only uses a thumb pick for his guitar, with no special effects, and straight into his amplifier. It is indeed a guitar style that is reminiscent of his father’s ... .”
That recording session proved, Holt said, that he was indeed ready – not just to be a Teardrop, but to lead the Teardrops: “We were getting songs down in one take. They were calling me ‘the one-take wonder.’ ... That’s, I guess, professionalism.”
For more information on Shawn Holt & the Teardrops, visit ShawnHoltAndTheTeardrops.com.
Sidebar: 2016 Blues Fest Schedule
After a one-year hiatus, the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival is returning. The two-day event will be held in LeClaire Park in downtown Davenport. Advance tickets are $10 for Friday, $15 for Saturday, and $20 for both days. Admission at the gate is $15 on Friday and $20 on Saturday. For more information, visit MVBS.org.
Friday, July 1
5 p.m.: Frankie Fontagne & the Ramblers
7 p.m.: Toronzo Cannon
9 p.m.: Tweed Funk
11 p.m.: Shawn Holt & the Teardrops
Saturday, July 2
1:30 p.m.: Juliana & a Soul Purpose Band
3 p.m.: Shane Johnson’s Blue Train
5 p.m.: Ellis Kell Band
7 p.m.: Laura Rain & the Caesars
9 p.m.: Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat
11 p.m.: The Cash Box Kings