Sammy Qadan woke up on Sept. 15, 2022, hung over “like a snake on a rail.” He did not know where in Natchez he had been the previous night, nor where he might have left his hat or boots. He had no recollection of how he had made it home until the woman in his bed put the pieces together for him.
His head throbbed as though he had been savagely assaulted with a boat paddle. Qadan looked in the mirror; the human wreck in the reflection balefully glared back at him. His hair was wild and disheveled, his eyes bloodshot apertures through which he could barely make out his surroundings. What had started as one more drinking bout with two buddies to see who could overindulge the longest had predictably descended into yet another Hieronymous Bosch alcoholic hellscape—a total blackout.
Qadan took stock of the utterly degraded image in the mirror and knew he’d had enough.
The musician grew up 15 miles south of Natchez in Sibley, Miss., a community known for being the site of the Adams County dump. The son of a Catholic mother and an “off the boat” Muslim father, Qadan’s young life was drenched in family loss and grief. His grandmother suffered with leukemia for years before passing, and his uncle, Sam Davis—for whom Qadan was named—died in an 18-wheeler wreck, introducing Qadan to feelings of sadness at an early age.
“I was born into a mourning, religiously conflicted family, with a cemetery 20 yards from our screen door,” Qadan told the Mississippi Free Press.
Escape from the pervasive melancholy of the house came from listening to music, a subversive act that required Qadan to smuggle the CDs he purchased into his home and listen to them surreptitiously. At 18 years old, Qadan took up the guitar, though “sucked at it for a really long time,” he said.
Armed with a musical medium through which to channel his anger and anguish, Qadan taught himself the complexities of the instrument, not realizing he had embarked on a path far removed from the career in dentistry that his parents had envisioned for him.
‘Well Get One, Baby’
When opportunity came knocking, Sammy Qadan was decidedly unprepared for it. Remembering the chrysalis moment of his music career, Qadan’s dark eyes danced with intelligence and humor, his white teeth gleaming from deep within the dense thicket of his black beard.
“In 2018, I had just moved back to Natchez and Lou Ellen Stout—the organizer of the musical festival, Longwood Afternoon—basically told me that I would be playing the festival,” he recollected. “I thanked her for the offer and told her that I was only a hobbyist musician. She said, ‘Baby, I’m not asking you to play, I’m telling you to play.’ Well, you don’t say no to Lou Ellen. So that was my first paid show, played in front of 1,100 of my closest friends. That kind of kick-started my musical career.”
The next year Stout again asked Qadan to play Longwood Afternoon. “This time she said she wanted me to have a band,” he recalled. “I told her I didn’t have a band. Without missing a beat, Lou Ellen said, ‘Well get one, baby.’ So, I hired out Baily Wolf and Josh Lopez, and we played as a trio—it was terrible. We sucked, loud and proud. But that was the genesis of Sullivan’s Hollow.”
Sitting at a window table for this interview at the Steampunk Coffee Roasters in downtown Natchez on a lazy Friday morning, Qadan reflected on the spontaneity of his band’s journey. If Sullivan’s Hollow had an official motto, it might be, “We may be lost but, hell, at least we’re making good time.”
Yet, despite the seeming lack of seething ambition, or a detailed battle plan for world rock ’n’ roll domination, Sullivan’s Hollow is steadily gathering momentum as one of Mississippi’s hardest rocking, most eclectic bands, potentially stepping up to fill the void Bishop Gunn’s self-immolation in 2020 left behind. Musing on the repercussions of the Gunn boys’ wipeout on the local and state music scene, Qadan contrived an allegory.
“Let’s say you’re at your house and a guy pulls up in a black Cadillac, and he gets out and he’s wearing a dark suit,” the musician began. “He comes up to your door and rings the bell. When you answer the door, he’s got this bucket. He won’t let you look in it, but he says, ‘I’ve got a bucket full of alligators.’ And you reply to him, ‘You’re a f*cking liar.’ But he sells you on it, and he makes you believe there’s alligators in that bucket.”
“So, you give him a wad of cash, and he gives you the bucket and leaves. But when you open the bucket, it’s filled with tadpoles,” he continued. “Well, then the next guy coming around selling a bucket of alligators, you slam the door in his face. Sullivan’s Hollow is now the second guy selling alligators.”
“I’m still good friends with Ben (Lewis), and I’m glad to see Drew (Smithers) doing so well with the Marcus King Band but, this whole area—this whole state—put its faith in Bishop Gunn,” Qadan said. “That band made Natchez believe that music could be the saving grace of the town. They gave Mississippi hope, and then they took it away. Sullivan’s Hollow isn’t stepping out from the long shadow of Bishop Gunn, we’re climbing out of the hole they dug.”
‘We’re a Big Musical Family’
Soon after his band’s debut at the Longwood Afternoon, Sammy Qadan recalled, Sullivan’s Hollow opened for former Gulfport rockers, Magnolia Bayou, at Smoot’s Grocery in Natchez.
“I guess we sucked just enough as openers to make them sound even better,” he mused.
By this time, Qadan had asked Natchez musicians Seth Cotton and Zac Case to come on board. “Essentially, Sullivan’s Hollow began as a one-off festival band, and now we’re a six-year endeavor. Zac, Seth and I are the core of the band, but Sullivan’s Hollow is more of a fraternal order than a band—we’ve had a lot of other guys play with us.”
“Chase Bryan has played numerous times with us,” Qadan said, starting a list. “(Former Magnolia Bayou lead guitarist) Dylan Palmiero is our first-choice lead guitar. Jonathan Nuccio is our preferred drummer. JT McCaffery, Bailey Wolf, Cody Dunaway, John Stephens, Brent Clack, Crawford Stevens, Clint Gooch, Baleigh Gooch, Victoria Sittig and Wyatt Brady all cycle through Sullivan’s Hollow as the situation dictates. We’re a big musical family.”
Sullivan’s Hollow put out its scintillating EP, “Void,” in 2020. The second song on the EP, “Heavy,” hit no. 7 on the Banks Radio Chart in Australia and Europe. COVID-19 shutdowns, however, prevented the band from traveling overseas to support it. The band also charted in Australia with the singles “Drown” and “Hair of the Dog.” Plans were in the works to play 10 or 15 shows in Australia, but the lingering effects the pandemic had on international travel dashed the band’s hopes.
Despite this setback, Sullivan’s Hollow took it in stride. “Like a lot of other artists, we did live-streams, a lot of back-door concerts, and basically just went back to the drawing board,” Qadan said.
The Seattle influence can be easily discerned in the 30-weight heavy chord-age found in many of Sullivan’s Hollow compositions, along with the grunge aura of detachment and alienation. But the band is also marvelously eclectic in the material it chooses to cover in its performances.
“We put a hard-rock stank on pretty much anything we play,” Qadan described. “We do ‘Shaky Ground’ by Delbert McClinton; we do ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ by Bill Withers; ‘Gravity’ by John Mayer; ‘Dead Flowers’ by the Stones. And our original music is its own weird culmination of a couple of additional flavors—there’s blues elements; there’s punk-rock elements. Our song ‘Black Sheep’ starts off like the Pink Panther theme meets reggae—it’s almost a genre hybrid of reggae and post-modern grunge.”
“At any given point we can play any given genre, and it doesn’t sound out of place because we are being true to ourselves,” he added.
‘I’ll Never Stop Playing’
In addition to his work with Sullivan’s Hollow, Qadan is recording a solo album, which Malaco Records producer Nick Smith is producing at his personal studio, The Vat.
“This record started by accident; it wasn’t supposed to happen,” Qadan said with a laugh. “Crawford Stevens had to cancel a studio date with Nick—we all use the same producer, that’s why it’s all good sh*t—and I told Nick I’d filI in Crawford’s studio dates. I’d been writing the songs between 2021 and September of 2022. And then I made “the change”: I stopped drinking. I decided there was no better time to document that time stamp of my musical life than that. It’s a capture of a pivot in my life, a conscious decision to do something different.”
Ten months later, Qadan has maintained his abstinence from booze and is exultant. “My life is better than it’s been in 10 years,” he said. “I have been afforded opportunities that would not have even seemed conceivable before I put the bottle down.”
Qadan plans to release a single sometime over the summer, then fire off another track six to eight weeks later. It’s Qadan’s intention that the complete album releases near Halloween. He then conspiratorially leaned toward this reporter and said, “I haven’t told anyone else this. While I’ve been working on this record, I’ve been cutting some other tracks on which I use only one microphone and that I record in only one take.”
“There’s no editing. It’s literally me playing a guitar and singing into one mic,” the musician continued. “If you hear a harmony, it’s because they’re in the room cutting it with me. So, between the album and these single mic cuts, a lot of music will be coming out really fast.”
As for what the future portends for Sullivan’s Hollow, Qadan shared that he hopes the group can prosper in the future with or without him: “In any other fraternal order, members come and go, but the order remains. So, the goal is that Sullivan’s Hollow will be around a lot longer than I am.”
“We’ve been getting more inquiries than we’ve ever had,” he added. “We recently organized and headlined the downtown Block Party in Natchez … We (held) a Sullivan’s Hollow Friends show in Brookhaven on July 8. We’re doing a thing in Manchester in August. We’re doing a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute in McComb on Oct. 20. We may do 200 shows next year, or we might have zero. We’re going to do another festival-style event like the Block Party in Natchez on New Year’s Eve. I’m talking with Hal and Mal’s about doing a couple of solo gigs. As long as my hands work and I can still sing, I’ll never stop playing.”
Qadan paused and grinned. “I’m just excited for the state of Mississippi.” The artist met with the owner of Hal and Mal’s, who happens to be the father of the guitar player in a band named Miss Blume, a group of young-adult musicians whom Qadan said “sound a lot like Rage Against The Machine; they’re really good.”
“My goal is to, face to face, blue collar to grass roots, go to as many Mississippi musicians as possible and talk them out of going to Nashville—because Mississippi is the original Nashville. Mississippi is supposed to be one big music magnet. Nashville is our satellite location,” Qadan said.
“We don’t have to prove anything to anyone. This is where it all started.”