With a cohort of like-minded musicians, vocalist and harmonica player Tony Holiday has been shaking up the blues scene in Memphis since his move there from Salt Lake City in 2017. In Motel Mississippi, his second solo album, he called on guitarists A.J. Fullerton (who had a hand in writing all the original material) and Dave Gross to co-produce the CD, which was recorded in Mississippi. Paired with his skilfulness on the harp, Holiday’s vocals have a mellow, retro touch, gliding across the lyrics with finesse. All but two tracks are originals; each song is influenced by such styles as Delta blues, Memphis soul, Hill Country blues and Cajun music. 

The first track, “Rob & Steal,” written by Mississippi bluesman Paul “Wine” Jones, is a swampy, hypnotic number that highlights Holiday’s resonant vocals, while the heaviness of the rhythm, saturated with organ, contrasts with a delicate guitar solo dancing above. His command of the harmonica is evident in “Get By,” a buoyant song reverberating with impassioned harp countered by guitar. “Trouble,” co-written by Holiday, also includes rousing harp and guitar, with Victor Wainwright adding a dash of wah-wah on the clavinet. Then “She’s So Cold” is somewhat trancelike, as Holiday sings of a woman who’s uninterested in their relationship while he remains enticed. 

Jake Friel takes up the harmonica in the lively “Just As Gone” in an effective call and response to Holiday’s silken vocals, accentuated with tasteful slide guitar. His voice is at its best in “Nobody But You,” written by Delta singer and guitarist Asie Payton. The smooth, laid-back quality of Holiday’s vocals continues in “You Know Who I Am,” emphasized by slide-guitar embellishments. Then in “Yazoo River,” an unexpected but splendid conclusion co-written by Holiday, he and Friel face off in an instrumental Cajun-spiced harmonica duel. The rich interplay of their harps is an exquisite musical conversation, leaving the listener yearning for more.

In Motel Mississippi, Tony Holiday showcases the appealing fluidity and ease of his vocals, offset by a dynamic performance on the harmonica. With a nod to the past, he gives us hope in a solid future for the blues. 

—Sandra B. Tooze