The Greenroom Blues:
An interview with Tony Holiday and Sarah Degraw on Keepin’ the Love Alive
By | Jenna Talbott
Issue II, July 2018
“We’ve been in the same scene for a while,” says Sarah Anne Degraw, sideways glancing Tony Holiday over a glass of whisky. The two are sharing a couch and post-show camaraderie in the green room after a successful night in the Salty City.
I ask which scene, in an to attempt to prompt a response (an art I have yet to master).
“The porn scene,” cracks Holiday warmly. “Collecting at cigarette lighter porn auctions.”
Degraw chuckles and plays along, then brings it back to the music scene, which is, ultimately what we are talking about this evening at the State Room.
The charm that places Degraw on the inside of a joke is the same charm that places her on the inside of her music. When she takes the stage, it is by the same presence that the audience knows the 23 year old front woman is right where she wants to be, and right where she belongs.
A three piece blues act from Kansas City is swelling at the front of the house, carrying on the pre-show for the Utah Blues Fest 2018. The soulful vocals and left-handed bass-line of Danielle Nicole bleed in through the pores of the green room walls and its occupants exude a respect.
“This was the first show that Sarah and I have collaborated on, cuz the festival was a female-based festival,” says Holiday.
Holiday’s success fronting his own project with vocals and harmonica has been accelerating for the past decade.
“The Vice President of the Blues Society, Tripp Hopkins, was asking who a female singer is around here, so I thought of Sarah and he hooked it up,” he says.
Degraw disclaims that her musical career has only entered the realm of the blues within the last six months—but the door is now open.
The two banter in agreement that Hopkins’ enthusiasm for the blues, and active support, does indeed make him a “Tripp."
“He’s totally down,” says Degraw. “He’s like, ‘Listen, just play--just play the blues. It’s about the blues.’"
If anyone can attest to the power of support from the Utah Blues Society, it’s Holiday, who has seen the society grow since it’s beginnings.
“The Blues Society has done so much for my career, it’s crazy,” says Holiday. “They’ve just fuckin’ launched it. And the whole point of collaborating tonight is cuz the Blues Society is hungry for younger players. They’ve actually got me scouting right now."
I think of the up-and-coming acts I’ve seen play out under the stars out at MGME. I think of the closet musicians who have begun to step up at Woody’s open mic. I think of myself, as a dabbling musician. And I ask what words of wisdom these cats have for aspiring artists.
“Advice for the youngin's…” Degraw contemplates.
“You are the youngin’!” Holiday teases.
But they both ultimately say the same thing, and others in the green room begin to tune in.
“I’ll tell ya—somebody told me some important words one night, after a show I thought was important,” says Holiday.
It was in Las Vegas, two and a half years ago. The someone was the sound technician for the Allman Brothers.
“He said, ‘Man… you’re good. But I just don’t believe you.' And he said it in a way that was so heartfelt, it changed my life.”
Holiday says he realized then that he had been wandering.
“It’s like somebody telling a story looking at the clock the whole time--like they ain’t tryin' to be there or something’,” he says. "So God, that was a game changer for me.”
“Be authentic,” nods Degraw with a slow exhale.
"Just be authentic if you come out and tell the story,” concludes Holiday. “Tell it and own it--then you’re good.”
Holiday takes a swig of his beer and looks to Degraw. She’s staring down at her drink, listening intently.
“Ah—yeh,” she picks up. "People like personality--fuck all that other shit. The world needs characters. The world needs people to be a lot more real.”
I’m listening with an appreciation that we've skipped over the concept of talent, as if talent is either an obvious or unimportant component. With these two, it's both obvious and earned.
The bustling green room has settled into a small audience and Degraw rolls on.
“Have stamina, man. Stick to your guns,” she says. "If there is anything I can say it's trust your gut, but learn how to do that. That’s important when it comes down to the wire—when it’s game time--and it’s part of being authentic.”
Degraw was brought into the music world at a very young age whether she liked it or not. Turns out she did, and over time she took the wheel.
“Listen—you’re the only mother fucker,” she advises. "There’s a 42 year old dude out there, that’s been doing it for 30 years, and he’s gonna tell you what he thinks should be. But then you’re not an artist, you’re a student. There’s a difference and there’s a fine line. You need to find the place where you’re an artist and you’re creating something original, but you’re respecting what has been."
With such a respect, Holiday recalls a lesson he learned from the “Great James Harman,” as he refers to him; a blues singer/songwriter and harpist from Alabama.
“Seventy-two years old--I love that guy,” he says. “We were driving home from this great gig, he was staying at my house. [Harman] said, 'I thought the guy in the front row hated me. And then he came up after the show and he wanted my autograph.’”
Holiday laughs, it seems, at the familiarity of the experience.
"It was so refreshing to find that after 50 to 60 years in the business that you’re still looking at being insecure. You’re still looking out in the crowd thinking 'I’m pretty sure that guy doesn’t like me.' So that’s another key thing--get over that shit. If you’re looking around for approval, it wont go. Because even the people who are digging you aren’t going to appear that way and you’re going to let that ruin your night. Don’t try to think what people are thinking.”
Degraw confirms that this is a Number One.
I guess I shouldn’t try to figure out what people could be thinking either, but from what I’ve seen and heard over the years I can’t wrap my head around anyone having a sour face with either of these cats on the stage.
Beyond the traditional venue scenes and closer to home, both have captured desert hearts and kicked up dust. Degraw has played MGME events on several occasions. Holiday used to take the stage at Desert Rocks.
“Was that in Moab?” laughs Tony. “Ok, I guess I don’t remember what planet I was on during Desert Rocks. I could never tell you where that was.”
I want to know, with their increasingly booked schedules, how they will keep coming down to us in Moab. We need these kinds.
“How? By van and weed."
“Yeah. Just some gas money, I’ll come down.”
I wonder at the relationship between the blues and the desert—especially in a laid back undercurrent community like Moab.
"Blues is not normally associated with the desert, but I can say the desert’s honest and the blues is honest,” says Holiday.
"I feel like the blues can go kind of anywhere,” says Degraw. "It’s relatable. Reliable. It can travel--it’s got roots.”
We take a predictable trajectory into the future and wrap up our session speculating about the the music scene in Utah and the roles of entities like the Utah Blues Society.
“There’s support there,” says Degraw. "And that’s what I feel like every other city has adopted that produces bands. Salt Lake City has yet to produce bands--you know--from here. Most people move, and then make it, cuz the support’s not fully here, which is unfortunate.”
“That will change,” says Holiday.
“It needs to change. It will. It is,” says Degraw. “It's shit like this, when people support people--their investments made and risks taken—that's the time when change happens and there’s progress.”
And the blues?
“The blues is gonna be just fine,” says Holiday. "They've got this thing like, ‘Keep the Blues Alive.’ Are you shitting me? Blues don’t need no help. Blues is gonna be just fine--always has been. Love. Keep the love alive. That’s a whole nother thing.”