Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Just short of 50 years ago, a curly-headed Moorhead State College basketball player marshalled his nerve and auditioned alone, just him and his guitar, at a run-down bar north of the tracks in downtown Moorhead.
“I’d been playing around at team parties, and one of the guys kept telling me, ‛Johnny, you gotta start getting this out there,’” the outgoing, still-hyperactive audience pleaser recalls. “So I did. I went down to the Rolling Keg [now Mick’s Office] and tried out for the boss.
“He told me, ‛You’re too loud … and you’re hired!’”
Thus began the Upper Midwest’s longest love affair with a proudly home-grown musician and his boys. As Johnny Holm approaches his golden anniverary onstage, his avid romance with fans – a passion as lusty today as in the bars and ballrooms of yore – burns as bright as ever.
“I’ve got to take better care of myself,” the ballcap-clad 68-year-old reflects, grinning from ear to ear. “I still love this. I want to do another 10 more years, at least.”
If there were an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the musician who’s traveled farthest and played the most in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, it would have Johnny’s name in the headline. He and his band know every county fair in the five-state region … plus Legion and KC halls, lake country pavilions, homecoming dances, corporate whoop-de-doos and whereever there’s power to plug into and a crowd looking for a good time. Just last week, they played for the North Dakota Grain Dealers in Fargo.
Johnny and his four musicians headlined at Valleyfair for 15 years, a gig that spread their reputation far and wide. They played two 45-minute shows Friday through Sunday in an amphitheatre that held 3,000 people. “I was used to playing in bars. Here I was in a sit-down family atmosphere – and in broad daylight,” he remembers. “I was so nervous the first time. You’re competing with so much activity all the time. You’ve got to really rope ’em in to keep them in their seats.”
And he did. Perhaps that’s where Johnny honed what he calls his greatest talent. “I’m just a rhythm guitarist. A lot of singers are a whole lot better than me. What I can do is read a crowd.”
He says he sees things other, more self-absorbed musicians miss. “Maybe it’s my ADD. I have attention deficit times 10,” he muses. “I can sort of tell when the energy is lagging, when they need a shot of something new. I’ve always had a good feel for the songs that people want to here.”
That sixth sense may be why he originally branded his group “Johnny Holm’s Traveling Fun Show.” Fans who are grandparents today still remember the manic tempo of their shows, one song seamlessly seguing into the next without taking a breath. From his first days in the hot bars of the day in Fargo-Moorhead and Breckenridge – the Gaslight, the Blazer – the energy has resonated as much as the music, a blend of rock and country hits. Fans not only leapt to their feet: They stood on the tables and chairs and sang along.
He remembers being called into owner Don Wold’s office at the Moorhead Holiday Inn. “We’d been playing there for a couple months, and I was worried: ‛Oh, boy. The boss is going to fire us,’’’ he remembers.
The boss asked him, “Do you know how many chairs we’ve broken since you started?”
Noooo. Then Wold answered his own question. “Eighty-five as of last night. Just keep up the good work.”
During the heyday of small-town dance pavilions, the Johnny Holm crew played them all – the Maple Lake Pavilion at Mentor, LRC in Halstad, Herb Johnson’s Barn near Arthur. As the ballrooms faded in the 1990s, they carried on in the venues where young people of those days gathered. “If they have a good time, they keep bringing you back,” he observes. That’s led to amazing longevity at some annual occasions, including playing for his 25th consecutive Concordia homecoming this fall and his 32nd Northfield, Minn., high school prom. “That’s kind of challenging when you’re 68,” he notes.
He credits much of his success to the man he calls “my manager, agent and best friend,” Dave Hoffman, better known to dance crowds as Winston Fink of the Unbelievable Uglies. Hoffman, who died in 2007, changed Johnny’s course one day early on. “I was playing at the Blazer in Breckenridge with Lee Massey one night when I got a call from the one and only Winston Fink,” he recounts. “He asked me, ‛What are you making down there?’ It was $500 or something like that. ‛How about if I get you up to $800 and take 3 percent,’ he asked me. Of course!
“We became a team at that early age. I still work with his wife Jean.” He adds, “I wish he were here to see how we opened up Iowa. It’s really big for us now. It was one of his big dreams. I miss him.”
Johnny has released half a dozen CDs on his own label, Neva Records, including 2016’s “We Were Only Young Once.” His best-known single, “Lightnin’ Bar Blues,” became something of a theme song, reaching number one on both rock and country stations in the Midwest during the ’80s. But though he’s performed all over the country, Johnny long ago chose to forego the lure of heading for Nashville for the so-called “big time.” “I figured out that you could take a chance on being a one-hit wonder, or make a good living right here where the audience loves you.”
He spent his first nine years in Fargo-Moorhead. “I loved the Red River Valley. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be here,” he says. That’s why he chose Moorhead State College, where he studied special education for five years – never quite completing that degree – and then stuck around until the Valleyfair contract drew him to the Twin Cities. Now an empty-nester after raising five daughters, he lives in Breezy Point near Brainerd, where he grew up. His wife Pam – a special ed teacher whom he met 40 years ago while performing at a convention — passed away one year ago.
Over the years, some 70 musicians have played with him. That total, though, includes veterans who have been with him for literally decades. His youngest daughter Jordan is one of the them, with more than 10 years’ tenure under her proud but demanding dad’s tutelage.
The years have left their mark. Johnny has been sidelined twice with hip fractures. He was back on stage nine days after the joint replacement, sporting a cane and a big smile. The second, though, caused a three-month hiatus after he re-broke the repaired joint. His hearing is far less than perfect. He’s spending a bit less time on the road, down from the 220 dates a year of the ’80s and ’90s to a mere 160 or so today, including 53 last summer. Even the exuberant Elton John curls are a memory under his ever present baseball cap … but the vibrant good nature and open heart are right where they’ve always been.
His friend of 30 years, Jack Sundrud, best summed up the lifelong love of music and his audiences that still keeps Johnny Holm rolling. It’s in the last verse of a song titled “These Bones Know Every Mile” that appears on his 2016 CD: “Tip your waitress. Sing your heart out. And leave them wanting just one more.”
Still Rocking Over 50 Years
Nancy Edmonds Hanson