Mark McDermott

High Fidelity: Jimmy and Holly Messer and the fine art of staying true

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Jimmy and Holly Messer. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Jimmy and Holly Messer. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Jimmy Messer always noticed her in the crowd.

He knew Holly Frerichs. He’d first laid eyes on her freshman year when he’d stopped by Holly’s dorm room to pick up her roommate for a date. They were both students at the University of Texas, in Austin, and there was something about Holly that struck Jimmy from that first moment.

She was beautiful, of course, a petite girl with striking dark eyes and a tumble of brown hair. But something else caught Jimmy’s attention. He was the guitar player for a rock band called the King Valentine Octet, and Holly and her boyfriend often came to their shows. He didn’t give much thought to the pull he felt towards her, nor would he articulate it until later. But what he saw in her was a certain strength of character, deep sweetness accompanied by a West Texas ranch girl’s no-nonsense practicality.

“It didn’t cross my mind,” Jimmy said. “Other than, ‘Here’s this really pretty, sweet little girl.’”

But junior year, when he heard she was single, he called Holly straight away and asked her to a show. She said yes, but she wasn’t aware that it was a date. She’d never thought of Jimmy that way – in fact, she’d brought her more free-spirited sister to a few King Valentine shows. “I thought they would be great for one another,” Holly said.

Jimmy most decidedly thought it was a date. So much so that he went out and got his hair cut.

“Literally, like two or three years worth of hair,” Jimmy said. “I thought she would like me better.”

Holly was living with a dozen other girls. When Jimmy knocked on the door, one of Holly’s roommates yelled upstairs, letting her know he’d arrived. She appeared at the top of the stairs, looked down, turned around, and wordlessly returned to her room. “I didn’t even recognize him,” she said. “He was like, ‘Hey, it’s me!’”

The band they were going see cancelled, but Jimmy suggested they go to dinner at a place called The Mars Bar. As they sat down to dinner, Holly grew suspicious.

“I was like, ‘Oh no, is this a date?’” she recalled.

“I think at some point she started to realize this was not a friendly outing,” Jimmy said.

Jimmy Messer on guitar. Photo by Marc D’Amour/courtesy Jimmy Messer

Jimmy Messer on guitar. Photo by Marc D’Amour/courtesy Jimmy Messer

They went out for at an underground speakeasy near the state capital building and later went to a honky-tonk, The Continental Club. The whole night, Holly kept thinking to herself, “He better not try to kiss me.” At the night’s end, Jimmy walked her to her door, bade her a good night, and left without a kiss. She stepped inside, furious.

“I was like, ‘I can’t believe he didn’t try!’” Holly said. “That’s a typical girl for you.”

Jimmy went home starry-eyed. He walked into his apartment and told his roommate, “Man, I am going to marry that girl.”

“I mean, it was just such an easy conversation. There were so many things that just clicked with us. In many ways – how we had been raised, our values, the things that were important to us, how we viewed the world, relationships, and family. I just felt really natural, ‘This person gets who I am.”

They quickly became inseparable. A little more than a year later, when they were visiting Holly’s family in San Antonio, Jimmy went for walk outside with her father and asked if he could propose to his daughter. Her father didn’t seem surprised, and gave his blessing.

“I’ve thought this ever since she was a little girl – I always felt whoever married Holly was going to be the luckiest guy,” her father told Jimmy. “Because she’s up for anything. All her life, whatever you were doing, she was excited and ready to go.”

“That was the first time that feeling had been articulated in my brain, something I was aware of and very much attracted to but that was the first time it had been into words for me. And I was like, ‘You are right. That is exactly why I am lucky to be with this woman.’”

Back in Austin, Jimmy took Holly out to dinner at The Mars Bar, where he proposed. “I was 100 percent surprised,” she said. “I was like, ‘So that’s why you are drinking so much.’”

She asked if he had her father’s approval. When he said he did, she somewhat tentatively said yes. “Then I ran to the bathroom and called my parents to make sure he was telling the truth,” Holly said.

They were married a year later. Now came the hard part.

jimmy messer on guitar

Jimmy Messer playing with Awolnation. Photo courtesy Jimmy Messer

Jimmy had played guitar since he was 8 years old – after his mother tired of the clang of his drum set and he arrived home from school one day to find a guitar in its place – and though he’d majored in Spanish in college, it was always understood between Holly and he that he was a music lifer. It was part of their unspoken bond.

“Some girls want to compete for your attention against music, and for me, that was never a contest,” Jimmy said. “Anytime a girl was like, ‘Well, you’d take your guitar over me….’ Well, yeah, absolutely. There’s no question. And that was usually the end of it. Holly was never that way.”

Now she walked the walk. He took a $5 an hour job as an assistant in studio where ZZ Top recorded. Holly taught 3rd grade and became the main breadwinner, without a word of complaint.

“Those were kind of tougher years,” Jimmy said. “Because her parents, and my parents, were going, ‘Hey, you got this degree – all these things you can do, and you are working for below minimum wage and your wife is supporting you. But I just wasn’t willing to give it up, because I saw people who were successful at it, and I’m going, ‘Man, I can do that.’”

Eventually, he was in a band, Goudie, which earned a record deal. Things eased a bit, and he and Holly had their first child, a little girl named Marley. But the band’s only record didn’t do well, and when the bottom fell out and the band broke up, Jimmy found himself fast approaching 30 and running out of money, and time.

A connection he’d made in the music industry, Dan McCarroll, helped him get an audition with a major band, The Wallflowers. It was his last chance. He flew out to Los Angeles for the audition, but by the time he landed, McCarroll had already left him a message. The spot had been filled. Jimmy called Holly, told her the bad news, but said he was going to sleep on a friends couch a couple weeks and see if he could find anything else. And he did get another audition, but then something stranger happened.

McCarroll obtained a meeting for him with international pop star Enrique Iglesias’ musical director. He met the man at a hotel bar in LA.

“I immediately just love this guy and think he’s the greatest,” Jimmy recalled. “And we have a couple drinks. He’s like, ‘Well man, this will be great. I’d love it if you’d play with us.’ And I’m like, ‘But you haven’t even heard me play!’ He said, ‘Well, Dan says you’re great.’”

Holly and Marley flew out and stayed at plush Sofitel Hotel with him.

“It was funny – they had robes there!” he said. “So there we were in the hotel room in our robes ordering room service and all that!’”

That night, most of the rest of the band arrived from New York. They were a hard-partying crew, and they put Jimmy through an initiation of sorts.

“I mean, we drank a lot,” he said. “I don’t really remember how I got home, but we had an early lobby call, shooting a commercial for Doritos or something, the next morning. 5:30 a.m., Holly wakes me up, she’s got coffee, she puts me in the shower, she’s like, ‘Come on, we’ve got a big shoot.’ She wasn’t mad at all, there was no like, ‘Where were you?’ It was, ‘Come on, you’ve got to rally.’ I walk down to the lobby and a couple of the guys were there and I sort of got the nod. ‘Okay, you are in. You made it. You survived.’”

Jimmy Messer's guitars. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Jimmy Messer’s guitars. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Two weeks later Jimmy was playing two sold out nights at Madison Square Garden. He had never been outside of the U.S., except Mexico; within a month, he had almost filled his passport with stamps. On the one year anniversary of 9/11, he found himself on stage at the Lincoln Center, playing a memorial show attended by victim’s families, U.S. senators, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. At one point, a Secret Service man tapped him on the shoulder, and President George Bush emerged on the stage.

“However you feel about George Bush, still the weight of the moment and the office and the man – it was pretty overwhelming,” he said. “They both stopped and shook my hand and said thanks for being here today, just because I happened to be the guy standing there.”

When the tour came to an end, he found a little house in Hermosa Beach and his little family moved to California. Iglesias was taking a break, but Jimmy figured he’d survive on session work. He figured wrong; again, he went a long spell without work, and his money started to run out. Finally, he picked up his phone one day to find Randy Jackson on the other end, inviting him to audition to play with some kids who had won a new show called American Idol.

Jimmy drove up to the auditions, on Sunset Strip in Hollywood. A hundred musicians were auditioning; all but three were African American. “Okay, they want to hire a black band,” he thought. “So I’m probably not going to get this one.” He played, and Jackson asked him to stick around a while. He waited an hour and a half, and finally walked out onto Sunset to find his car towed.

“It just couldn’t get any worse,” Jimmy said. “I got no money, my car just got towed because I was auditioning for a job I’m not going to get anyway…and so I walked however many blocks to the place and spent my last bit of money getting the car out, and then I’m driving home trying to figure out how I’m going to explain this to my wife and Randy calls and gives me the job. ‘Oh man, you just saved my life.’”

Things happened quickly after that. Jimmy was flown to New York to play on Good Morning America with American Idol runner up Justin Guirini when winner Kelly Clarkson took notice of him. They were both Texans, and she was putting together her own band for her post-Idol career. She asked him to play guitar for her.

“The second I heard her sing, I knew what was up,” Jimmy said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll play in your band!’”

So began a long association with Clarkson – he would eventually co-write and produce two albums for her – as well as several years of relentless touring. A few years later, Holly became pregnant again, and Iglesias asked Jimmy to go on a 12-week global tour that included stops in some of the world’s most turbulent places, including Bahrain, Indonesia, Libya, and Egypt. His application for life insurance was rejected. Jimmy was hesitant. Holly was not. “You’ve got to go!” she told him. “Go work. I can take care of this.”

He went. Early in the tour, Iglesias gave him five days off, and he flew home. Holly was induced into labor, Jimmy got strep throat and was in bed two days, and then he was gone again.

“She was in this little crappy house in Hermosa with a 3-year-old and a newborn baby, and her husband was on the other side of the planet for three months,” Jimmy said. “Just unbelievable, the strength of this person, the character it would take to handle a situation like this.”

The band played Bahrain two days before the U.S. embassy bombing, and arrived in Jakarta during an angry election season that saw a million masked people on the streets, carrying machine guns marching with large oxen. “It trippy time to be out in the world for an American,” Jimmy said. “And I was never one to stay in my hotel room…I was having the most amazing experiences you could imagine, and my wife is stuck here with these kids, never once questioning my fidelity, or anything. She could not have been happier for me.”

Fidelity was something that Messer always took seriously. From the first conversation he and Holly had ever had back in Austin, it was an ideal both deeply believed in. “We always had the same ideas about children and how we would raise them and what would be important to instill in them,” Jimmy said. “Those things mattered to us more than most people we knew.”

The Messer Family: Jimmy and Holly with, left to right, Rhett, Mason, and Marley

The Messer Family: Jimmy and Holly with, left to right, Rhett, Mason, and Marley

The touring rock n’ roll world does not cherish such ideals. Messer, over the years, saw countless bandmates cede to temptation. Even Holly, when time and money permitted her to join tours, would sometimes bear witness to an almost casual disregard for marriage vows. “Jimmy would tell me, ‘Don’t say anything, don’t’ gawk, don’t gossip. You’ve got to treat it like a job. They can do what they want.’”

It simply was never an issue for Jimmy and Holly. She never worried one moment about him on the road, because she knew – it wasn’t even a matter of choice for him. He held the ideal marriage so dearly that he was literally not capable of unfaithfulness.

“People always think musicians are dogs,” Jimmy said. “But we are also the true romantics.”

“Jimmy has always been Jimmy,” she said. “He’s had smurf blue hair, black hair, every time he gets another tattoo, I freak out – I’m the conservative one, ‘Oh no you are going to regret it!’ – but that is appearance. He is morally very black and white. You either do the right thing, or the wrong thing. You always know where you stand with Jimmy.”

After they had their third child, Mason, and beautiful little Marley started being not so little anymore, it became harder for Jimmy to be on the road anymore. “For a kid, it gets to where it’s not that cool that your dad is playing Saturday Night Live when he’s missing your soccer game,” Holly said.

So Jimmy came home to stay. The family had bought a home in Manhattan Beach, and Jimmy bought a recording studio in Venice and turned his attention fulltime to producing, making records for artists such as Clarkson, Trevor Hall, The White Buffalo, Meiko, and Joe Firstman.

Jimmy and his son Rhett getting ready to surf in Manhattan Beach. Photo by Kevin Cody

Jimmy and his son Rhett getting ready to surf in Manhattan Beach. Photo by Kevin Cody

Someday, maybe, he’ll hit the road again. But for now, he’s more concerned with living a love song then playing one.

“It’s an idea over anything else, this higher thing that we have aspired to,” Jimmy said. “I am definitely a romantic in that sense. Being able to chase women, or have women chase you. To me, that is more about the ego, that is not true romance, not a true story of sacrifice, and friendship, and all these things that matter – being there for someone else, and knowing they are there for you. I mean, security is an illusion, obviously, but that is about as close to it as you can have, when you know there is that person there you are connected with no matter what. That is a beautiful thing.”

This is the finale in a series of Valentine’s Day love stories.

Previously: Beach Valentines: love never lost

Beach Valentines: love around the world

Beach Valentines: music and mischief

Beach Valentines: working love

Beach Valentines: long distance young love


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