BEMIDJI, Minn. -- There’s a little bit of Nashville just off Paul Bunyan Drive in Bemidji. It’s in a cozy studio at the home of Joe Holt, a 50-year-old singer and songwriter who works with a Music Row agency in hopes of making it big in the music industry.
“It’s a little embarrassing to never have been to Nashville,” Holt said in a recent interview. “I’ve never actually personally met a single person that I work with on a regular basis, ever. It wasn’t planned that way, but that’s kind of the way of the music business nowadays, unless you actually pack up and move to Nashville.”
Holt is an independent songwriter with Nashville’s Merf Music Group and a studio singer doing demo work for other writers across the country, though he has never met any of them. He also is the front man for the Americana band Acoustic Smoke, which has recorded three albums and toured across the region, although that has been pretty much on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic. The performing hiatus has allowed Holt to concentrate on songwriting over the past year.
“This kind of professional songwriting and the Nashville scene, it’s relatively new to me,” he said. “I haven’t been at this a long time.”
He has, however, been singing a long time. As a middle schooler in St. Cloud, he was promoted to the high school choir, and eventually referred to a conductor from nearby St. John’s University for advanced vocal training.
Originally from Park Rapids, Holt attended Oak Hills Christian College in Bemidji, then earned master’s degrees in theology and one in Christian philosophy at Bethel University in Arden Hills, Minn. He and his wife, Sarah, moved to Bemidji in 2005 and started a church called The Gathering, which met at Wild Hare Bistro. But eventually Sarah joined the staff at Bemidji Evangelical Covenant Church, where she now is youth pastor, and Holt began focusing on his music.
Holt met guitarist Roy Hershberger, and the two hit it off immediately. They formed Acoustic Smoke, adding other members along the way.
“I like that voice,” Hershberger said of Holt in a radio interview with KBXE in Bemidji. “I was looking for someone to play and record with. The more we played, the more a certain style and certain sound kind of developed. We were just having fun with it. But when people started hearing us they thought 'that sounds pretty good' and we should take it more seriously.”
What Holt is taking seriously now is his songwriting. It’s a competitive business, and although he hasn’t had a breakthrough hit, he is making progress.
Three of his songs have been purchased for use in Christian movies. “Nothing to get outrageously excited about,” he said, “but they’re there.” He also has sold songs for use in cable television shows.
Recently, Holt was notified that two of his songs are under consideration for use in major movies. His “Young British Soldier” is on the list of finalists for “Benediction,” an upcoming American-British biographical drama film written and directed by Terence Davies. It’s about a World War I British soldier who wrote poetry throughout the war.
Holt put Rudyard Kipling’s poem of the soldier to music. “A number of people have put it to melody and performed it over the years,” Holt said. “But the few who have done it have made it into a sea shanty. I rewrote it as a song, and it’s beautiful. They’re looking at my song as their theme song.”
Also in the running for a movie is Holt’s “Adam,” which tells the story of Adam and Eve from Adam’s point of view. The movie is “Chaos Walking,” a science fiction thriller film adapted from the first book of a trilogy by Patrick Ness. The film stars Daisy Ridley as an astronaut who crash lands on a planet where all the women have disappeared and the men are afflicted by "the Noise" -- a force that puts all their thoughts on display.
In the song, “Adam sees the woman coming into his world as just chaos,” Holt said, “and his struggle to understand both himself and his reaction to her. His final conclusion is that he really hates the snake. ‘The snake lied to me.’”
Holt’s catalog of songs continues to grow as he works on many of them at the same time.
He is a Tier 2 writer for Merf. He moved up from the bottom tier pretty quickly after joining the staff when his song “Daddy’s 49” caught the attention of Merf’s CEO. That song reminisces about his father’s Indian Chief motorcycle. “It was actually a 1952, but that didn’t work in the song so I made it a ’49,” Holt said.
“Merf has about 500 writers at their disposal,” he shared. “They have a small cream of the crop who have all written multiple top-10 hits. I’m obviously not in that category. Then they have a category under that for people who have published lots of music both for TV and for other artists, but never more than one, maybe two top-10 hits. That’s their Tier 3 writers. I’m not that, either. I’m a Tier 2 writer, people who are full-on professionals, have made publications, small music publishing contributions to cable networks, radio stations and lesser-known movies. So you’re on the cusp of breaking in, and that’s me.”