Heidi Holton’s music is, in some ways, like a trip to the past. On her recent album, “Mockingbird Blues,” she plays a stark, ominous style of acoustic country blues in the vein of Rev. Gary Davis or Blind Willie Johnson, mixing a brisk fingerpicking style with some wickedly fluid slide playing. Her voice keens and wails like some sort of primal Patti Smith on classics like “How Long Blues” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed & Burning,” but it’s the originals that are truly haunting. The idea that the ominous backwoods stomp of “Snake Marie” and the heartbreakingly delicate “You Don’t Live Here” exist on the same album, let alone a debut, is stunning.
Holton first became entranced by the blues indirectly. She was a fan of Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s 1970s side-project, Hot Tuna. “I was looking on their album covers to see who they listened to, and the name Rev. Gary Davis kept popping up,” she says. “So I tracked down one of his CDs, and just absolutely fell in love. I was completely inspired by his music.”
That started Holton down a path of study that led her to study with Kaukonen himself 10 years later. “I found out that he had a guitar workshop out in Ohio, and I went and took classes with him,” she says. “He was amazing. I think that the thing about Jorma’s music that’s always appealed to me is that he took something that was old, 1930s-style pre-war blues, and he made it his own. He made it relevant to his generation. And that’s something that I’ve always been drawn to do. To be able to bring that to an audience of my generation and have it be relevant and current is very important to me.”
Holton’s slide-playing is particularly masterful, which is a bit of a surprise, given the reason she started playing slide in the first place. “When I started booking solo gigs that were three and four hours long, when you’re playing fingerstyle guitar, your hands get really tired,” she says with a laugh. “I was talking to a couple of friends who suggested that I use alternate tuning and slide guitar. It was just a matter of saving my strength, but when I started doing it all of these things opened up to me. It was a different voice; it was a way to approach the fretboard that I hadn’t used before. So I was able to jump in and be more creative with my songwriting.”
As far as her originals go, you won’t hear a lot of the lyrical clichés that come up in classic blues songs. “One thing I try not to do is write like I’m in that era,” she says. “Times are very different now than in the 1930s, and life for me as a white female in 2016 is very different from what it would’ve been playing this genre of music back in the day. So I try not to write about things like going down to the crossroads, shooting your baby down, things like that. I try to find issues that are important for my generation and relevant to me and try to put it to the vibe of that older music without sounding too retro while I’m doing it.”
And for Holton, great songwriting doesn’t have to be complicated. “Some of the best songwriters write in the context of simple song structures,” she says. “A good song is a good song regardless of how simple or complex it is. There are so many places that you can go, and for me the blues has been a really good vehicle to get there.”
Artist: Heidi Holton
Venue: Smiley’s Acoustic Café, 111 Augusta St., Greenville
Date: Thursday, Dec. 29, 6:30 p.m.
Info: 864-282-8988, smileysacousticcafe.com