On an unseasonably warm January night, all of Chapel Hill seems to be out celebrating UNC's basketball victory over N.C. State. In the Carrboro bar Southern Rail, a mix of hippies, hipsters and sorority sisters in UGG boots hold drinks and rehash the game. But Mark Holland sits alone, sipping a hefeweizen and waiting for his set to begin at The Station. Wearing a white shirt, tie and black pants, he looks out of place, so he keeps quietly to himself.
"I like dressing like a blues musician," he later explains. "Plus I get better service when I dress like this. People actually call me 'sir.'"
Quiet isn't a word often associated with Holland. Words generally burst from his mouth like steam from a pressure cooker, Holland exploding with idea after idea. His fingers drum constantly, appropriate considering that he's been playing drums since he was 11. Friendly and gregarious, he doesn't seem to have ever met a stranger.
But a few nights after returning from a short solo tour that had him playing his sinister country blues in Asheville, Nashville and Greenville, S.C., Holland is calm and collected, waiting for his time. When he takes the stage with his guitar, harmonica, and a tambourine strapped to his shoe, his voice is a warm, ragged moan recalling the best of Mark Knopfler. Percussionist Michael Dwiggins backs him up on a cajón, a box-like drum with a low, thumping sound that simulates a heartbeat. The celebrants somehow hush up and listen.
Two decades ago, Holland could have been the hero for these kids. Along with his twin brother Michael, he is best known as one of the creative forces behind Jennyanykind, the semi-legendary Chapel Hill band that had the misfortune to try and drive the Americana train before anyone else wanted to ride. Their early jangly and psychedelic pop songs caught the ear of Elektra Records, a major label that was less than thrilled when the band soon evolved into a splice of country folk and Memphis blues. The songs were better, but the resulting album, Revelater, was a lot less marketable in the eyes of the company. Looking back, Holland wishes the band had done things differently.
"Mike and I were really into roots music right then. We weren't into rock music. I wish we had sounded huge," he says. "It would have gone over a lot better. I can't tell you what it would have brought to us."
What's more, the band was hamstrung by the fact that Mark, who spent a few years as an officer in the Army, was still serving in the Reserves. He had to be back home every fourth weekend to report for duty.
"I couldn't smoke pot. I couldn't do blow. I wanted to grow my hair to my ass. I wanted to do all those things," he says.
Holland is the first to admit that Jennyanykind's fortune suffered from his own musical mercury. At any moment, his thoughts are consumed with writing music. He says words and melodies rumble around in his mind, bursting forth in a rush of songs. Sometimes it's a raw blues number with a rueful harmonica and a thumping acoustic guitar beat. And sometimes the music is folkier with a rollicking piano and soaring fiddle, like the stuff that eventually got Jennyanykind booted from that label. Most recently, though, it's been all about the blues, particularly the grist of his hero, Mississippi country bluesman Charley Patton.
"I went for a year where all that I listened to, all day every day, was that one record I have by him, a double record," says Holland over a Bynum Brown at the Carolina Brewery, his prime hometown hangout. "The music is all about making stuff sound gravelly. It's all about sounding dirty. If I ever get lost musically, I go back to him."
About getting lost, tracking Holland's various musical endeavors almost calls for a flowchart, but today, he is concerned with two: His upcoming solo tour to promote his recently released The Best Country Blues of Mark Holland, and a recording session with his ever-evolving, psychedelic blues band, Jule Brown. That's not to mention last year's "comeback" of Jennyanykind, or the CD he recently put together of tunes he originally pitched to a Nashville publisher.
"It's not that I get tired of what I'm doing. It's just that I have a lot of ideas," he says. "I have beaten myself up about that. As I've gotten older I've been able to focus a little bit more, control it a little more."
The Holland brothers were born five minutes apart (Mark is younger) on March 5, 1969, in Monroe, N.C. The brothers learned to play together, toured together and experienced the rollercoaster ride of being on a major label together. But until last year's down and dirty "Jam Up and Jelly Tight," their part of a split 7-inch with The Moaners, they had never written a song together.
But once they came up with the main riff—a raw, nasty blues riff that would do Jimmy Page proud—they wrote the lyrics by chatting online.
"We both contributed a verse. My verse is the second verse: 'Her jelly's so fine, I've been eating it for days.' You know, a sexual innuendo. I can't remember what the first verse is, to be honest."
Given his plethora of projects and interests and various aborted attempts to focus even on a song he helped write, you might assume Holland suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. In fact, he is bipolar. He says his mood is more up than down, while lithium and Seroquel help control his manic symptoms. It's a boon for his creativity, he reckons: "Your thoughts race. It's hard to think about things like work or family or anything else once you get hooked on something."
Jennyanykind left Elektra with a nice pay-out, which they used to purchase several thousand dollars worth of high-end recording equipment. That early success, however relatively slight, has allowed the Holland brothers to explore a lifetime of musical whims, even while maintaining day jobs. To wit, Jule Brown will use the equipment the band bought after the Elektra days to make the upcoming album.
These sessions represent an important shift for Holland: Usually when he writes a song, he has a very specific and often demanding vision for how it should be recorded, because he knows how to play every instrument on that song. With the upcoming Jule Brown recording, Marvin Levi of The Veldt is behind the kit. Holland has finally learned to let go and let Levi take the lead.
"The beautiful thing is Marvin and I click like bacon and eggs," he says. During Jule Brown practice earlier in the day, the band worked on four of the eight songs ready for recording. "I felt so satisfied when we were playing. Hearing him, I felt at ease and knew that everything was going to go OK in the recording, that I wasn't going to have to do the drums. We sound great. It's going to be fine. I feel good."