“So we have our next victim.”
Those were the first words Widespread Panic guitarist Michael Houser said to Sam Holt when they met in Kansas City in the summer of 2000. Holt, a musician, had answered the phone the previous day and agreed to fill in as guitar tech for the band. That meant hopping on a plane, getting to their next show and figuring things out… pretty much on his own.
“Literally no one’s there to tell me what’s going on, how the stuff’s set up, because they don’t really know,” Holt remembered. “So I’ve got all this stuff spread out on the stage and I’m looking at it, trying to figure out where to start.”
Holt was so engrossed in what he was doing that he didn’t even hear Houser walk up behind him. But it was those six words, he said, that helped dissolve some of the tension he was feeling.
“I could tell he was being sarcastic and it kind of chilled me out a little, helped to calm me down,” Holt said. “Because it was kind of an intense situation.”
Holt ended up staying with the band, even sitting in with them on stage, long after Houser’s death in 2002 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 40. But it was those two years, and the bond he formed with Widespread’s founding guitarist, that made him want to focus on his own music.
“He gave me a lot of confidence,” Holt said. “After we had been working together for like a year, he said to me, ‘You know, I think you should go play your own music, play guitar, do your own thing’ and I had never really considered that. I was a fan of Panic and then got that gig. I never overtly showed that, but I was very happy and felt very privileged to have a gig that I really loved. So I never really thought about that and then he passed away and those words started to resonate a little bit and that’s when I went out and started playing. I’d had a band before that but, after that, we wanted to play more and more.”
Holt first played with a band called Outformation, who made a record in 2005 produced by JoJo Hermann, the keyboardist for Widespread Panic. He then established the Sam Holt Band in Colorado where he was living at the time. It was there that he and the band would periodically pay tribute to Houser so, when he moved to Athens, Georgia, it was only natural to continue the tribute.
“We’d done this kind of show in Colorado, usually on the date that he passed away, which is August 10, so when I was moving back down here this keyboard player that’s going to be playing with us [at Sky City] — his name is Adam Grace and he has a band called Truth & Salvage Co. and the Sam Holt Band had played a couple of shows with them in Colorado — we just got to talking and he’s like, ‘You know, if you ever want to do a Remembering Mikey type thing in the south, I got some guys we could do it with.’”
It wasn’t the first time someone had posed that question, Holt said.
“Many people have asked me, ‘Why don’t you do that show in the south?” and it’s usually just because I didn’t live down there,” he explained. “I never really thought about taking it on the road like that. It just kind of seemed like a thing to do, a way to play some music that really means a lot to a lot of people and a way to just keep the spirit alive, I think. He has a bunch of songs that were never played live. He has a solo album called ‘Sandbox’ and we’re going to be playing some tunes off that.”
The Remembering Mikey “tour” kicked off in Tupelo, Mississippi, on September 10, and will conclude in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the night after Holt’s Sky City show.
All, he said, are a way to honor a one-of-a-kind musician.
“As a musician, I had never heard anybody play like him,” Holt recalled. “He was coming from a totally original place. It’s just his sense of timing and melody and songwriting. I don’t know, it really impacted people a lot.”
Holt said it certainly impacted him.
“There was a time in my life where I was a fan before I started working for them and I would try to figure out songs because I was so intrigued by the way he played: Try to figure out certain riffs or how a song went,” he said. “I think just having that in the background or the foreground of my musical upbringing through osmosis… I can’t say I play like him, I can’t say I sound like him, but I can say that he was an influence on me. And there are times when I think I kind of sound like him, but there’s no one who will ever really sound like him.”
Remembering Mikey: A Tribute to Michael House Featuring Sam Holt Music with Scarlet Begonias