A special kind of Honky Tonk

by Jordan Green

The staff at the Clubhouse in Greensboro mill around the bar watching “Pussycat Dolls Presents: The Search for the Next Doll” on a mounted television on a Tuesday night before the “3-4-5” event kicks into gear.

That’s three bands for five dollars. The only thing is that Jamie Carroll, a singer-songwriter from Surry County, has cancelled about two hours earlier, so the lineup is down to two. HonkyTonk Special, a band from High Point, has been asked to come in earlier to get the night’s entertainment underway.

Sometime around 10 p.m. Jason Holdaway – singer, rhythm guitarist and self-styled “HonkyTonk Bossman” – arrives in his ’67 Ford Galaxy, a beauty painted with licking flames and outfitted with a dual exhaust system. He walks in wearing a battered cowboy hat, a crisp black shirt, low-slung pants and Converse sneakers. His band has been playing together for about six months. They do everything vintage – dress, automobiles, and especially music. No bones about it, the sound they’re aiming for is Hank Williams and Johnny Cash from a period running roughly from 1948 to 1955. In fact, in one of his songs, Holdaway sings, “I was born about fifty years too late.”

He’s also, incidentally, in the process of opening a tattoo shop in High Point.

“I’ve been building walls and painting all day,” he says. “I got my license. The High Point Police Department is gonna be on the lookout for me. I’ve been arrested for so much.”

His mother has been helping out, applying black paint to the walls. She’s also here tonight to support the band. Right now though, everybody’s waiting for the drummer, Derrick Gough, to return with a cymbal so the show can begin.

“Derrick left the cymbal at the house,” Holdaway says. “My bass player’s got the keys to my house because I get too drunk at the end of the night. Derrick forgot to bring the key with him. I said, ‘Just bust out the window. I’m not gonna be living there next week.'”

This isn’t HonkyTonk Special’s regular venue, and it’s evident that the crowd – what there is of it – will have to be won over. There’s a clutch of players making profane exclamations at the pool table and some young strivers getting drunk on the patio. But there’s also Desiree Valentine, who introduces herself as a member of the Barefoot Betties – a trio of groupies devoted to inspiring the band. Only it’s just Valentine tonight; the other two women are absent.

They kick off with a Hank Williams III song, “Going Straight to Hell.” Holdaway sings in a voice that is nasal and wrought with pathos and anger, not unlike Hank III or Wayne Hancock. He leans into the mike, wielding an acoustic guitar like a shotgun and looking laconic, earnest and hell bent – not unlike Hank Sr. He plays crack rhythm, a pattern of striking the bass string and then strumming all six strings.

Luke Mishoe, a bespectacled young man with greased hair who plays the upright bass, thumps the strings. George Felix, on electric guitar, looses a trebly run of notes, clean and spare and bereft of distortion. Gough pounds the skins in rudimentary fashion.

The group around the pool table starts calling out Lynyrd Skynyrd requests. One of them sneers: “‘House of the Rising Sun’ – now there’s a challenge for you.”

“All right,” Holdaway growls. “You asked for it.” As the band kicks into a high-octane honky-tonk groove, he sings: “You say you like Lynyrd Skynyrd, I don’t really give a f***/ The kind of country I’m hearin’ today really sucks.”

The band tunes as pool balls angrily ricochet off the sidewalls of the table. Then they play a gentle tune that lovingly pays homage to country music forbearers such as Lefty Frizell and Minnie Pearl.

“You know about the Ziggy’s show, don’t you,” says Tamrey Davis, who introduces herself as Holdaway’s mother. “We’re spending money on it for fliers and all.”

Later when her son makes a knock about sports bar patrons, she adds, “He played sports though… football and wrestling. And he went to the Art Institute in Atlanta – money out of my pocket.”

The future appears uncertain for Holdaway and his band, but you can be certain the HonkyTonk Bossman will walk the tightrope between personal ambition and hell-bent dissolution. He’s probably not kidding about this outlaw country stance.

“Working real hard, trying to get paid,” Holdaway sings, “’cause I’m a crazed country rebel when I drift from state to state.”

Authentic? Damn right.

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