“Great songs! Great band! I have all Bill’s albums!” That three-exclamation point rave is courtesy of Bonnie Raitt. She is referring to Bill Holland, who, not unwisely, put the plaudit on a sticker and attached it to his latest CD, Way Overdue. The album is a compilation of the best of three records Holland released with his band, Rent’s Due, from 1974 to 1981.
Those were the years in which D.C. was the fulcrum of the Raitt/Little Feat blues-and-boogie axis. They and similar local good-time acts like the Nighthawks and Catfish Hodge dominated the town’s musical landscape, but Rent’s Due was also a top draw. This despite the fact that, as Holland notes now, his repertoire only “passed for rock.” At the band’s core was the blues, but usually disguisedcleverly, highly idiosyncratically, wryly disguised even, both musically and lyrically.
Songs found lyrical inspiration in Descartes; Holland would hang a rhyme off the word “deconstructivist,” and he dared to appear before college kids in rock clubs playing a “real sad samba.”
“Nobody in the pop Washington [market] did a sad samba in 1974,” Holland says with gleeful pride. “But I did. And the motherfucker holds up 20 years later.”
The old-enough-to-vote cuts on Way Overdue have aged well, sounding fresher than, say, Gary Numan or Devo. This is due partly to the fact that Holland always surrounded himself with the city’s premier instrumentalistsguitarists like Pete Kennedy and John Jennings, who went on to craft Mary Chapin Carpenter’s award-winning sound, and horn players like Larry Strother and Kurt McGettrick. “There are so many great players here, it just scares the shit out of me,” Holland says with a touch of awe. But Holland was also drinking from a deeper well than the day’s fashion pages and radio playlists.
The Holland oeuvre is one that “draws on Bing as much as it draws on the Boss, that draws on Monk as much as it does on…some other ‘M’ name,” says Holland. “And I never can sing a song where it doesn’t sound like me.” The distinctive Holland croon has been compared most often to the whiskey whisper of Mose Allison, another singer whose emotion is relayed through the cracks and strain rather than a glossy shine. “My strong point and my stumbling block is that my music is eclectic,” Holland sighs, adding, “I feel it’s ’embracive.’”
“You always just wonder if you’re nuts,” he says. “But enough people have told me over the years that this band meant something to them, and they always used to see me at the [now defunct Bethesda club Psyche] Delly, and I always had a great band and the challenging songsI’m fine where I am right now, but as far as putting out this Rent’s Due thing, well everyone has put out a compilation. I mean, you open Goldmine and there’s just appalling stuff in there. But I tried to pick the best stuff from the three albums and pick some interesting unreleased stuff and radio tracks that showed off the songs, the playing.”
It’s a wide-ranging mix, rocking but jazzish, blues-inspired but not Muddy or T-Bone sounding. Holland also calls himself a singer-songwriter, but don’t think James Taylor.
“It’s pretty peculiar to be a singer/songwriter in the pop eraI call rock “pop”who’s a piano player,” admits Holland. “Most of the music you listen to has been guitar-driven since the Beatleswith the exception of Billy Joel, Randy Newman, Elton John. Elton wasn’t listening to what I was listening to.”
What Holland was listening to was postwar jazz, “particularly the kind of hard bop, the kind of music made in the ’50s and ’60s by East Coast musicians who took gospel and blues and put it together with the fire of bebop.” But Holland shies from being labeled strictly jazz. “A lot of my music has to do with the blues as it expressed itself through soul music, with backbeat ballads.”
If the Hoagy Carmichael influence is less apparent in the work of Capt. Fantastic, it’s because he had more rocking role models than the fiftysomething Holland.
“My generation wasn’t any fun,” Holland declares. “I didn’t start playing music until I was 27. Never played in a band. It was before the Beatles. So the only people who played music were redneckspeople I never saw who were across townor legit guys, who were fruitcakes and dweebs. And I could not memorize a Chopin sonata, much less sight-read it. So I didn’t have any musician friends until the Beatles hit.”
When the Fabs stormed America, Holland was out of town, away in Liberia with the Peace Corps from ’63 to ’65. But music must have been in the air across the New Frontier, because Africa is where Holland formed his first band. The lineup was alto sax, trumpet, upright bass, and acoustic piano. No Strats or Teles. The locals weren’t interested in mop-tops. They wanted to know about American jazz (“I knew this much about jazz,” Holland says, thumb and forefinger nearly touching). They taught him high-life rhythms.
Once back in the states, the D.C. native pursued his first ambition, writing, landing a job with the Washington Star. But it was the swinging ’60s, after all. Holland met Marianne LaRoche, whom he later married, an artist who now teaches at the Corcoran, and “hip-hopped” into the younger generation, determined “to live a second adolescence.”
Though he thought playing piano in bars “might not be as important as writingbecause I was really into the literary life at that point. I really wanted to be a writer writer,” Holland’s increasing time spent in clubs “was just giving me goosebumps.”
He quit his fast-track job and became a full-time musician, first as a founding member of the Nighthawks and soon as a bandleader.
But by the turn of the Greed Decade, Holland had wearied of the grind. Potential label deals had either fizzled or were not attractive enough. “And the generational page was turning to the new wave of Elvis Costello and Graham Parker and all that stuff,” Holland notes. Jazz, too, was fixated on fusion. Even his champion, Bonnie Raitt, fell on hard times.
“It’s funny to play music you’re passionate about that has very little to do with what the [hip media] have made to seem important.”
So Holland sat out the ’80s, returning to the career he had abandoned, journalism. This time, he combined his callings, becoming Washington bureau chief for Billboard magazine.
By 1992, however, the fingers were itchy and there was
a pile of songs that few besides LaRoche had heard. Holland began playing gigs (but didn’t quit the day job), and called on old friends and colleagues to record a new album. That was the Wammie-winning Players, Fools, & Thieves, which took the form of a songbook, with Mary Ann Redmond, Tommy Lepson, and others joining him in singing his tunes.
The returned, refreshed edition of Bill Holland, with and without Rent’s Due, falls more clearly into the jazz camp, if only because rarely is there more than one vocal per set and tenor aces like Ron Holloway and Bruce Swaim share the bandstand. And Holland opens his mouth just once on a new album that is being shopped around. Even without lyrics, the untitled effort showcases Holland’s thoughtful songcraft. It may sound to some like instrumental jazz noodling, but each track is a composed song, not an excuse to jam. Holland also included an homage to one of his prime inspirations with a lovely, sneaky version of Dylan’s “My Back Pages.”
“I just am amazed that there aren’t more singer-songwriters who don’t work in that comfortable valley between rhythm and blues and hard-bop jazz,” Holland says. “But in this town, I find myself really alone.” CP