John Henry Holthus remembers the call. It’s not the type you forget. It’s not the type of call anyone forgets. His mom told him that day she had cancer. Henry, a Kansas native who has lived in Arkansas for the past six years, wrote one song about it, “Cheryl Ann” which carries her name. That was all he had to say at the time.
When she died several months later, the songs poured out. Songs such as “Flow,” the first tune he wrote after her passing, reminded him to find a path forward even as it seemed his world was crashing down. Another discussed seeing her in the mortuary for the first time.
“Then, the slew of emotions were much more heavy,” he said.
What: John Henry and Friends CD release party
When: 8:30 p.m. March 22
Where: George’s Majestic Lounge, Fayetteville
Many of the songs were collected for the new album “What What,” which will be celebrated with an album release party March 22 at George’s Majestic Lounge. Like the songs contained on the album, Henry invested all he could on the new release. He has personally created the artwork, right down to the wax stamp he seals every album with.
“What What” was recorded about two years ago at East Hall Recording studio in Fayetteville under the direction of Chris Moore. John Henry tabled the release since that recording, in large part due to the success of another of his projects, the bluegrass band The Squarshers. As that band has grown in popularity, the project fronted by Holthus called John Henry and Friends has been sidelined as he and drummer Brennan Johnson focuses on that band and Adams Collins and Tom Anderson focus on another band, Arkansauce.
Like Arkansauce and The Squarshers, John Henry and Friends is an upbeat, modern approach to bluegrass. It’s not traditional, although the idea of smart songs and vocal harmony remains. Even Henry has trouble distinguishing between the songs he considers for The Squarshers and those he writes for his own purposes. The songs on “When the Storm Comes” are a bit on the darker side, but perhaps that’s because of the intensity of the subject matter. And because Holthus says many of the songs in The Squarshers’ catalog would be described as buddy comedies if they were films.
Holthus can hear a sadder version of himself singing his own songs as he listens to the recording in preparation to perform the material live. They were particularly raw during the recording process.
“There were a few songs that were difficult for me,” he said.
Considering the subject matter, “When the Storm Comes” is not a heavy album. It contains an upbeat approach, and the subject matter comes with helpings of the bandleader’s funk, bluegrass and country predecessors.
He finally able to revisit the songs, and that’s led to the album release. The full lineup of John Henry and Friends will join him for the occasion, which will focus on the “new” album but dig deeper into his personal catalog as well.
Chucky Waggs, a guitarist for fellow neo-bluegrass band Mountain Sprout, will open the show.
Holthus will play gigs with John Henry and Friends as his schedule allows. He might also pursue another solo album, perhaps a slow, sad country album.