Story originally published in BND Prime Life Magazine in September 2016.
As a young boy, Johnny Holzum’s favorite pastime was sitting on the basement steps in his Cahokia home watching his dad’s band practice. A full-time barber during the week, John T. Holzum Sr. released his passion for country music on weekends, playing twangy licks on bass and rhythm guitars. And just as every little boy dreams of being just like his dad when he grows up, Johnny Holzum could see himself as a future musician; he could also feel the rhythm.
“I started banging on drums and messing with a piano around 5 or 6, then took lessons when I was 9,” said Holzum. “As I moved on to high school, singing and playing music was all I wanted to do with my life.”
What he didn’t know then was that with enough blood, sweat and support, playing music for a living was entirely possible, because today at the age of 50, he’s still doing it. His band, Well Hungarians, is one of the most well-known acts in the St. Louis region, playing over 230 shows a year. They’ve opened for national artists like Charlie Daniels and Blake Shelton and have traveled to Nashville and beyond, but Holzum has never gone too far to remember how he got there.
“My parents never discouraged me from pursuing music as a career,” he said. “The only thing they stressed is that there is an economical side to any job, and they wanted me to learn the business so that I could make smart decisions. Saying ‘I’ll just play music’ wasn’t an option if I wanted to be a true professional. I had to work to get what I wanted.”
His father passed away when he was only 18, but the young artist continued to work hard for something his dad had encouraged him to accomplish. For the rest of his teens and early 20s, Holzum managed a Taco Bell full-time while also playing out four nights a week with his first band, Sammy and the Snowmonkeys. During any hours he wasn’t making burritos or singing rock covers, he researched the music business, talking to experts in the industry and finding out how to make music his main source of income. In 1993, he quit Taco Bell and opened a music store in Cahokia, Holzum Music, where he sold instruments and taught lessons.
“It was a way for me to be closer to doing what I loved for a living,” said Holzum.
That same year, he left Sammy and the Snowmonkeys to start Well Hungarians. It was a shift from party rock, which younger crowds wanted to hear, to the music Holzum related to more as an adult.
“As you age and mature, your taste evolves,” said Holzum. “My dad had exposed me to soulful country songs, and my older sisters listened to bands with amazing harmonies like the Eagles, Styx, Little River Band and John Denver. I had a deep appreciation for all of those, and I wanted to play and write music that would express that.”
Some people told him not to play country while some said no one would listen to 70s songs. But each time he was told he needed to define a particular genre, he became more clear about what his band should play: A variety of music using great vocal harmonies that audiences everywhere could enjoy. Everything from 70s dance tunes and 80s ballads to some original songs he wrote that had a crunchy, southern rock feel.
“I decided that we didn’t have to be labeled as a country band, or a party band, or a rock band. We could be just a band,” said Holzum.
And being “just a band” has worked perfectly for the past 23 years. Well Hungarians have played over 6,000 shows and continues to be one of the most requested bands at weddings, wineries, festivals, and pubs throughout the region. Their original songs have received airplay in the U.S. and ten other countries worldwide. After over 40 years of playing music, little Johnny has become a respected veteran in the industry.
“My pleasure comes from helping these ‘kids’ in my band learn about the same things I did,” said Holzum. “When I was in my 20s, I had times when I was failing but I had to discover on my own how to make it work. I now get to be the elder statesman so they don’t have to suffer through that.”
One thing that Holzum stresses is that he demands the utmost level of respect for each audience from his bandmates. It’s the least he can do to honor the talent that came naturally from his father.
“I want people to feel comfortable bringing their nine-year-old daughter and their 90-year-old grandmother to my shows so they can both enjoy music,” said Holzum. “My standard is to conduct our band as a respectful, professional act. I want people who knew my dad to see me and say ‘Hey, his dad played music, and he plays music too.’ He didn’t get the opportunity to see me play, but being a legacy for him is what makes me feel fulfilled.”
You can find Well Hungarians’ upcoming shows at wellhungarians.net.