Tennessee bluesman settles in Butte County
“California has the best environment I’ve seen for street performing so far,” Mark “Porkchop” Holder offered in his distinctive Southern drawl in downtown Chico last weekend. He was on a break from startling passersby with his blazing slide-guitar—as well as his big vocals, harp playing and foot percussion—during the Saturday farmers’ market. “Sure, there’s places you can make more money, but there’s nowhere I’ve been less concerned about getting knocked in the head.”
The Tennessee native moved to Berry Creek last June, and has been performing semi-regularly at the Saturday market and at Café Flo (making an impression on the CN&R editors who named him Best Guitarist at the recent Chico Area Music Awards). And when he talks about street performing, Holder speaks from more than 15 years of experience playing on streets and in clubs throughout America and Europe, first cutting his busking teeth on the mean streets of New Orleans.
“It’s really competitive there,” Holder said. “You have to get out there at 6 in the morning to secure your pitch, and it’s funny to see some of the folk doing it, like guys who look like they just jumped off a freight train out there playing on the street, then at the end of the day you see ’em jumping into a brand new Nissan Pathfinder. It’s a 4-to-600-dollar-a-day proposition down there.”
While relating a story from a darker part of his personal history—and shedding some light on why his take on deep Delta blues carries the weight of someone who’s experienced hardship, he said, “I’ve had my money stolen, I’ve been attacked with a weapon in Nashville.” He once pulled a gun to frighten a knife-wielding thief. “I’ve put that all behind me. I don’t carry anything like that and that’s not what I do anymore, but I was in my 20s then, and hungry, and if you wanted to take mine you couldn’t have it.”
Indeed, Holder’s history is filled with highs and lows. He grew up in a place called Waddell Hollow near Birchwood, Tenn., the son of a Baptist minister (“I was born on a Wednesday and they took me to church Sunday”). The Gospel music he heard in church provided some of his musical inspiration and education, with family filling in the rest.
“My grandfather was a harmonica player named Hack Waddell, a sharecropper,” he said. “On the next farm was a black man named John Thomas. Now, Uncle John played with his guitar tuned to an open chord and played it with the smooth end of a Case pocket knife. I’m 41 years old and still doing the same thing; this was the first thing I ever heard.
“You can do a lot of things with a musical instrument, but when I realized you can make a guitar sing with a slide on your finger, I was sold.”
Holder struck out on his own in his early 20s, and after experiencing some success as a solo artist and with the critically acclaimed Black Diamond Heavies, he was forced to quit touring because of health issues.
“I pushed myself into diabetes with alcohol,” he said, noting that in addition to addiction issues, he also once weighed 535 pounds (“That’s where the ‘Porkchop’ thing comes from,” he explained).
“At one point I had to go into the hospital to get my leg removed. I woke up in the recovery room and saw this bandaged-up thing and asked the nurse, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ She said it was my leg, and I was like, ‘Ah, that’s nasty, you put it back in the bed with me?’
“She said, ‘No sweetheart, it’s still attached to you.’ They were able to save it.”
Holder said he also struggles with bipolar disorder: “It’s a pretty severe case, and I can get a little out of control without medicine,” he explained. “There’s a thing in redneck culture where people holler and shout and stuff like that, and looking back there was a real strong thread of that and probably a really strong thread of bipolarity in my family.”
The affable, polite Holder laughed as he related even the worst of his past troubles. He’s been sober and in better health for several years now, and followed a brother from Austin, Texas, to California. He’s happily married to a woman named Cindy Lu, who is also a musician, and the couple are looking to start a rock project tentatively called the Commie Truckers.
“Part of what attracted us to California is that in the middle of the South we’re really left-wing people, like IWW [Industrial Workers of the World]-type left wing, and we wanna get out and spread some of that a bit.”