When Austinites entertain music-loving friends from out of town the typical question is, “Who should we go see while we’re here?” And in a city loaded with good bands, the most repeated answer was always, “Storyville!”
Austin’s version of a supergroup (a label the band hated) was fronted by singer Malford Milligan – one of those guys who hits every note every night. Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton (bass and drums – as if you didn’t know) delivered the solid groove, whether or not they were called Double Trouble. But perhaps the best thing about Storyville was the guitar playing of David Grissom and David Holt – it was some of the best anywhere. At every performance, the two continually bounced tasty licks off each other, elevating the performances of not only themselves, but the band as well. And of course, the audience was always appreciative…
Grissom is a favorite of guitarists everywhere. They’ve heard him play with Joe Ely, John Mellencamp, and many others. Holt is a veteran who has played with Carlene Carter, the Mavericks, and a long list of others. Anybody not familiar with his work should pick up the band’s latest album, Dog Years, and check the interplay between them.
But alas, there is good news and bad concerning the Davids and Storyville. Good news first – they both recently sat down with VG to talk about the band, guitars, and a host of other subjects. The bad news is the band’s recent New Year’s Eve gig was its last, as the members have made a mutual decision to call it quits.
Vintage Guitar: I saw you on the cover of the Chronicle. How did that feel? Was it a kiss of death to be on the cover?
David Grissom: I don’t know, but I guess no one is immune.
I thought it was a little strange. My tastes generally differ from theirs.
Andy Langer wrote [a great article]. The review at the end wasn’t so great, but I guess you have to take the good with the bad. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. I tried to make my mind up about [Dog Years] before any [reviews] comes out.
Have people actually approached you at Storyville gigs and asked if you were the guitar player for Stevie Ray Vaughan?
That has happened probably 10 times, and they ask David (Holt) the same thing. It sounds unbelievable, but after you hear it five or six times you begin to realize people are not as informed as you think.
I have spoken to engineers you have worked with who said you try to get a sound without any EQ at the board.
Yeah, I prefer that. I usually listen to the amp in the room and get it to do what I think it should be doing. After that it becomes an issue of finding the right mic, the right preamp. I can usually tell in about 30 seconds after I hear it through the monitors whether or not I will succeed at making it sound right. There are studios that, for whatever reason, just never get a great sound. Then there are other studios, like Cedar Creek, where it’s hard to get a bad sound. If you can get the sound to come out of the amp, it’s not that hard.
I have a small studio at my house, two or three microphones and about six little old tube amps – trashed out Fenders and Gibsons, a Matchless – and I have really not been able to get a bad sound.
Is that because you know what you want?
It’s because generally little amps are easier to record than big amps. When you record at home and at most studios, you go straight from the mic to a preamp, then maybe to a compressor and then straight to tape. You bypass the console and minimize the wire.
Do you use special cable, like George L’s?
Cables all sound different, no doubt. If I had it my way I would have it all done with George L’s. I finally broke down and had a pedalboard put together about a year and a half ago. I got tired of going to sessions with a gym bag while everybody else had refrigerators full of stuff. I finally got Bob Bradshaw to put all that stuff on a board and make a good power supply for it. It basically sounds the same with everything turned off as it does plugging straight into the amp.
How did he do that?
I think mostly by putting things in the right order, using a good power supply and a clean signal path.
What’s in the pedalboard?
I’ve got a couple of different compressors I go to first, because it’s a buffered input. I use the compressor mainly for the studio. Then it goes to the Centaur. It’s the best overdrive I’ve found, it retains the clarity of all the notes. Then it goes into a clean boost that Lee Jackson made (see interview in this month’s “Guitar Shop” column). Then it goes to an Arion chorus I use for chorus and Leslie sounds. It’s funky and cheap. I’ve used the TC for years but Bob Bradshaw suggested the Arion. From there it goes to a volume pedal, then a Boss delay, and then into a Bradshaw tremolo. That’s a great tremolo with two separate channels and two types of tremolo. All my tremolo effects on the record are that unit. I can’t say enough good stuff about it.
You like your sound punchy and percussive.
I like some natural compression from the amp. My favorite amp, live, is an old 50-watt Marshall. It has a solidstate rectifier for tightness. Most of those old Marshalls compress when you get them up to a certain level, but they don’t go away. A lot of amplifiers sound great in a room but then you get them onstage and you can’t even hear them. There’s a fine line between something that moves air and thumps you in the chest, but at the same time the top notes give a little bit. It’s a hard balance to keep the tight clarity on the low strings make the top notes warm. I am really picky about the type of high-end – I want it to be warm and not hurt at all. Loud and warm.
Do you have a preferred type of tube?
I use Svetlana EL34s. I also have one [amp] that uses the old GEs because it has about 575 plate volts – the big-bottle 6CA7s.
Why do you have two heads onstage, and one cabinet?
One is a spare and I alternate them.
What is the story with the Booze Weasels. I saw you at a fundraiser for Danny Thorpe’s family, with Shaver, and with Sonny Landreth at Antone’s.
We’ve done about one gig a year for the past couple of years. We used to do it a lot more. It’s a lot of fun, we never rehearse.
What about guitars? I heard you do use the PRSs to record.
I do, especially now that I have the McCarty models. Mine have tremolos. I prefer the sound of a tremolo in the guitar. It goes against conventional wisdom but it feel it makes the guitar more alive. It adds some life and springiness. Plus the tremolo is the best made. The McCarty’s solved the problems I’ve had with the PRSs in the past – not quite enough low-end. The new McCarty pickups are the best they’ve ever made. It’s a 22-fret guitar, it’s thicker. And the heel and neck are bigger. And it has more headstock angle.
I’ve seen you play Teles, as well.
I’ve got a ’50s Esquire I use a lot, it’s on “Born Without You.” I’ve got a couple of black-guard Teles – a ’52 and two ’53s. Those seem hard to duplicate in a reissue. On three of the four old Teles I have, you can talk through the pickups. They pick up everything, there is some sort of magic about them. Ever since I heard the first two Roy Buchanan records I’ve sort of been obsessed with re-creating that sound.
You used to have a ’59 Les Paul Standard, didn’t you?
I don’t have that anymore. It was an amazing guitar, I just wasn’t playing it. Frankly, I bought five acres of land with it. I could never seem to make it work for me. I’ve got a ’59 335 I used for most of the solos on the album. I also have a reissue from the Custom Shop that I’ve been playing live. It’s a phenomenal guitar.
How is it different from the old one?
Well, the feel. Now that I’ve played it about eight months, it’s getting juicier. I keep telling our guitar guy not to wipe it off. I am beginning to like guitars with cavities. I got a new PRS hollowbody – not the archtop. It’s not as big.
What is the Gretsch on the cover of the Chronicle?
It’s a reissue White Falcon. I use it in the studio a lot.
What amps did you use on Dog Years?
I used a 20-watt Marshall for most of the rhythm tracks, a Park 75 for most of the leads, and an AC-30 on a couple of things.
What wah are you using?
Mostly a Vox.
What is that sound on “Fairplay?”
That is the Arion set on stun. Turn all the knobs up.
What do you do in the studio, other than Storyville?
I do things around Austin a lot. I did a cool record in Nashville about a year ago, with Chris Knight, on Decca. It was really fun. We had three guitar players – me, Kenny Greenburg, and Richard Bennet. It’s a great record.
Do you have any cool flat-tops?
Yeah, I have a ’56 J-50, which is pretty much out of the ballpark. I have a Collings D3, and a Harmony Sovereign, which is cool. I tune it down sometimes.
What kept all of you in Storyville instead of hiring out for possibly more money and less work?
We all just wanted to. I liked the idea of being in a band and playing the way I wanted to. I also liked to write songs and have them played. When I work for someone else, my first priority is to make them sound good and to complement whatever they’re doing. In Storyville we all played for the song, but you do have the opportunity to stretch. When I played with Joe Ely I got to stretch a lot. When I played with Mellencamp it was much more structured. I went out with the Allman Brothers for three weeks recently and it reminded me of how much I like to play guitar. Storyville was a great vehicle for that and a great vehicle for writing songs – a combination of people who are really special.
Malford (Milligan) had Storyville originally, with none of you.
Yes, that band broke up just as he was beginning to make a record. So Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon played on a few songs, then I came in and played on a few songs. That’s the first I ever met Malford. We ended up putting together a bunch of people who played on the record to do a South By Southwest show. We decided to make a go of it.
Are all your guitars stock?
Yes, I don’t like to change the old things. I do like to set up my own guitars. It is important to do that when you’re out on the road because there is never anyone around to help. I am pretty tuned in to what I like in terms of a setup, and it makes difference in how the guitar sounds and feels.
What else have you done that you really enjoyed?
I got to do a Buddy Guy record. That was a great thrill. I recorded with John Mayall and he ended up cutting one of my songs. Ringo Starr…I am forgetting something.
Those are cool enough.
I have a hard time going into the studio and not having a good time. I am lucky enough to get called to play for people who want me to play the way I play. That is a great privilege.
Vintage Guitar: You have played guitar in mostly country situations in the past. Do you think it is rare to be able to go from country to rock the way you have?
David Holt: Yeah, I think it is. I can do it because I can emulate what I hear. It is not easy. Anyone in a rock band who thinks they can go play country is probably mistaken, but it can be done. I can play a Hendrix song without it sounding like its coming from a country player, and I can play a Merle Haggard song without it sounding like a rock guitarist. I grew up on a lot of that stuff, my father listened to a lot of it. I just absorbed it.
Are Strats the only guitars you play?
Yes, mostly. I play a Custom Shop with fat 50s. It’s got a great curly maple neck.
I see you use a pedalboard. What’s in it?
I have never been a big fan of effects, period. I just use something to get a better level for solos, a more saturated tone. I used some vibrato on the first record that I needed to recreate. I have a delay and a reverb pedal – just the basics. Lee Jackson made the board I’m using now, it’s really quiet.
I see you playing Marshalls with Storyville, exactly which one is it?
It’s a ’72 50-watt with no master. I run it on about five or six, relatively clean. The cabinet is loaded with Vintage 30s.
What is it like playing with Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon?
It’s great, they play great.
How old are you?
37. I’ve been in bands since I was 15, travelling on the road. I’ve played with a lot of good players.
Who were your guitar gods when you were learning?
Hendrix, Clapton from the Cream era. I had three older brothers and we all played guitar. My dad played guitar. When I was a kid we would all have to go in the kitchen and perform, one by one. Whatever they were into, I was in to. My father always played country songs, so I got a lot of that, too. He knows all these Hank Williams and George Jones songs. I knew all the words to these songs I’d never heard the recorded versions of. I would hear them later at some point and think, “That’s not right.” I later realized dad had adapted the songs – they were all in G.
Were you born in Dallas?
Yeah, we moved to Lubbock when I was five. There were a lot of rural-minded people there.
If money wasn’t an issue, what music would you play?
The only reason I did the country thing is, well, partially for the money…but the main reason is I was a friend of Nick Lowe’s for a long time, and he was married to Carlene Carter. He called and said, “You should really go do this gig.” It was all coliseums and Johnny Carson and all these monstrous places, 18 months worth. That snowballed into MCA’s President, Tony Brown, who had been producing all the coolest stuff coming out of Nashville. He called me and wanted me to play with the Mavericks, down in Miami.
He flew me down and did the whole record in a few days. I also played with Rosie Flores for a year in ’89. Pete Anderson played on and produced her record, so that was fun. I had to play Pete’s stuff with her and then I had to play James Burton’s and Albert Lee’s parts. Then I played for Joe Ely and I had to play David Grissom’s parts. I played with Bill Carter and I had to play Stevie and Jimmy Vaughan’s parts. I was fortunate to be always learning a really cool guitar player’s style. I won’t say I ever got it perfect, but I was close enough for everyone to raise an eyebrow. No one was the wiser. When I was playing country, I was getting to play some of the best country – the cool stuff. The Mavericks started out that way but it was becoming retro, really stripped down, like Carl Perkins. I felt like a racehorse on a trail ride. That’s when I bailed, to play with Joe Ely.
How long did that go on?
I did the Love and Danger tour and then went straight into Storyville. I’ve known Joe since I was a teenager. He is a spiritual and musical icon in my mind – a musical guru. A musician’s musician. His thing is entertaining people wherever you are.
What guitar players do you like to watch?
Jimmy Vaughan, that’s about it. Do you know any other guitarists around here who are any good?
Yeah, he’s a friend of mine. He’s from Waco, but he lives in Nashville now. We were in a band together at one time.
What have you recorded that you are most proud of?
I’m proud of all of it, and don’t regret any of it. I’m proud of the fact I did the Mavericks record in two days without ever hearing it. It was in Criteria studios in Miami, where Clapton cut “Layla.” It’s a beautiful place and I saw the inside of it for two days.
They had wiped out all the guitar tracks and I had to go back and do all of that. I don’t think that’s something just anyone could do.
Have you never gotten to play with any of your heroes?
Yeah, Hubert Sumlin and Albert Collins.
Grissom and Holt duke it out during a Storyville gig at the Brookhaven Amphitheater, Long Island, June ’97.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’99 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.