Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
A member of James Cotton’s touring band, the young guitarist is now a part of the legend’s critically acclaimed new CD, Giant.
By Jennifer Wheeler & Linda Cain
Guitarist/vocalist Tom Holland is relatively young to have such an impressive blues resume. A professional musician for over 11 years, Holland has honed his craft to the point where he has become one of the most respected, in-demand guitarists on Chicago’s blues scene today. Not surprisingly, he is one of the few guitarists, among the younger generation, who understands and grasps the various forms of Chicago blues throughout its long, storied history. While many of his contemporaries blend blues with soul, funk, R&B and rock, Holland and his band, The Shuffle Kings, stay true to the roots of the music. The guitarist has worked with a who’s who of blues greats, including: Byther Smith, Eddy Clearwater, John Primer and L.V. Banks.
Holland has been a member of the legendary James Cotton’s band for the past seven years. Cotton, a.k.a. “Mr. Superharp,” has just released a critically acclaimed new CD on Alligator Records, appropriately titled, Giant. Holland has the honor of playing guitar on the CD; he also sings lead vocals on one tune.
Chicago Blues Guide caught up with the busy musician to inquire about his work on Giant and touch on a few other bluesy topics.
Q - How is Cotton’s health? And where does he reside these days?
Cotton is in good health these days, he's been sober now for four years. He currently lives in Austin; Pinetop Perkins is also now residing in Austin as well, so they both hang out a lot when they are both home, off the road.
Q - How and when did you hook up with Cotton?
I joined the band Nov. 2, 2003. I came in after Rico McFarland left to play with Lucky Peterson. I had worked with the other guitarist, Slam Allen, around Chicago with a couple of other bands, and he recommended me to James. I started as a temporary guitarist, and ended up staying seven years so far
Q - I'm curious about the great vocalist on the CD. What can you tell us about Slam Allen?
Slam has been working with James for 10 years now, and is originally from Monticello, NY, about 90 miles north of NYC. He's been playing for years, and has a good following in New England. He lived in Chicago for a short time when he first joined James' band.
Q - How long has James Cotton had his current band members?
Everyone has been with James at least three years, Slam has been with James for 10 years, I've been with James for seven years, Noel has been with James on and off since 1980, and Kenny, Jr. has been with the band for three years.
Q - The rhythm section members, are they related to Kenny Neal?
The drummer, Kenny, Jr. is Kenny's son, and bassist Noel Neal is Kenny's younger brother.
Q - What musicians play on this CD and are the same ones currently touring with the James Cotton Band?
The band on the record has also been Cotton's road band for the last several years. The band is: Slam Allen on guitar and vocals, myself on guitar and vocals on "Sad Sad Day", Noel Neal on bass, and Kenny Neal, Jr. on drums. And with Cotton on harp!
Q - Why did James Cotton decide to do another CD. What number album is this?
I guess he felt it was time to do another record; he's very proud of his road band right now, and I'm guessing he figured it was time to do a record with the road band. I think he's recorded around 30 albums over the course of his career.
Q - Is this the first James Cotton CD you are on?
Yes, first one, of hopefully many more!!
Q - Do you have any special moments or stories in the making of this album that you can share?
Honestly, we recorded the CD a while ago, June of 2009. I don't really have anything that stood out, but we spent a week down in Austin, rehearsing and recording, went to Antone's one night, but outside of that, it was pretty much all business.
Q - How about a favorite cut?
Probably the two instrumentals, “With the Quickness” and “Blues for Koko.” That song was for Koko; we started recording the CD the night that Koko died, and that was the first track we cut that night.
Q - Any special guests?
No special guests, just James and his band, doing what we do best, playin’ the blues!!!
Q - I noticed there are a few Muddy Waters tunes on this CD. Do know why he chose to cover three Muddy songs?
James worked with Muddy for 12 years after Little Walter left Muddy's band. He started with Muddy in 1954 after Junior Wells left to pursue a solo career. Like many of the Muddy alumni, Muddy had a very big influence on James, and James LOVES Muddy's material. It’s very complimentary to the blues that James not only plays it, but loves it!
Q - How was it going to IBC (International Blues Challenge) this year with Grana Louise’s Band, who represented Chicago as winners of the Windy City Blues Society Challenge?
It was a great time to get to go to the IBC's with Grana. Memphis is always fun, but to be representing Chicago was a great honor. It also gave me a chance to reconnect and network with a number of old friends that I hadn't seen in a long time in the business.
Q – What is the craziest thing to ever happen to you during a gig?
The craziest thing to happen to me on a gig, well, you probably wouldn't be able to print. But before I started working with John Primer, I worked for a summer with L.V. Banks playing a beauty salon in Englewood. Marty Sammon got me on that gig.
Oh, and a couple of years ago with Cotton, we played a blues festival in Spain -- IN A BULLRING.
Q – What is your advice to the younger generation of blues musicians?
Don't get into the music for money; do it for the love, as long as you love what you do, you'll go very far in this business. Also, make sure you take the time to study and learn from all the "masters." Take the time to research from the early acoustic guys, through Muddy, Wolf, Earl Hooker and all the way to the "stars" of today’s blues scene. If you know your history, you can play anything you want!
Visit Tom Holland online at: