New York the spawning ground for Americana’s Hollis Brown
by Whitney Youngs
The “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” the second song on Bob Dylan’s 1964 album, “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” tells the story of a poor, unemployed man living in a crumbling cabin on a farm on the outskirts of a South Dakota town with his wife and five children. Mr. Brown cannot feed his family, so at the height of his despondency, he spends his “last lone dollar/on seven shotgun shells” and kills his family, then himself.
Dylan recorded the roughly five-minute ballad, with its Shakespearean ending and second-person narration, in New York City. The song underscores Dylan’s ability to craft a timeless protest song about economic and social injustices that continue to plague American society.
The song resonated particularly with two Queens natives, Mike Montali and Jonathan Bonilla, who named their band after the destitute farmer.
“I’d always written songs and I’d always wanted to be a songwriter,” recalls Montali, a second-generation American of Italian immigrants who began to sing around the age of 14. “We put bands together in school and no one wanted to sing, so I did. From that point, I just tried to find my voice, and I am still trying to find my voice, in many ways.”
Montali and Bonilla (also a second-generation American of Puerto Rican immigrants) write all of the songs for Hollis Brown, an Americana rock quintet rounded out by Clevelander Andrew Zehnal (drums), St. Louis native Adam Bock (keyboard/vocals) and Brian Courage (bass) hailing from Long Island.
“New York has got a really great community for finding other musicians, with so many people doing all different types of music,” Montali explains. “I left once and went to school for a year at the University of Delaware. I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I need to go back to New York and start a band.’ I grew up in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, so it’s tough to compete with that.”
The band was founded in 2009 and released its studio debut, “Ride On The Train,” in 2013. The band recorded the album over 10 days in Nashville. Alive Naturalsound Records, an independent label headquartered in Burbank, heard the album and signed the band.
In between the release of its debut album and its second studio work, Hollis Brown recorded the Velvet Underground’s “Loaded,” a cover album that captures Montali and Bonilla’s affinity for a record they first bonded over as teenagers. Hollis Brown released “3 Shots” in 2015. The album contains an unfinished song by rock ‘n’ roll icon, Bo Diddley entitled, “Rain Dance.” The band had the privilege of recording the song after meeting the manager of Diddley’s estate.
“We were being sponges and trying to find out everything we could about him [Diddley], and it was mentioned in passing that there was all of this music he was working on that no one had heard,” Montali recalls.
Aside from clubs and theaters, Hollis Brown has toured the amphitheater circuit as the openers for Counting Crows, The Zombies, Jackie Greene, Heartless Bastards, Rich Robinson of Black Crowes and Jesse Malin.
“It’s a roller coaster of a lifestyle, but it’s just always something that was in me,” explains Montali on his life as a musician. “I think the first time I heard The Beatles in sixth grade, before I would go to bed, I would put my headphones on and pretend I was in concert singing those songs. Once you get in front of people, there’s nothing like a crowd giving you love.”
Hollis Brown plays at 8 p.m., July 13, at Saint Rocke, 142 Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach, (310) 372-0035.www.saintrocke.com.