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Steve Holy heads back to Texas -- where he drilled and thrilled.

Story by Larry Holden-Photos by Morrison/Wulffraat

Steve Holy is standing next to the 50,000-pound mobile drilling rig he helped rebuild. The rig's mast juts 40 feet into the star-flecked Dallas sky.

"I started working at my dad's shop when I was old enough to carry a shovel," declares Steve. "When I was in school I'd work when class was out and during the summer. I've shoveled a lot of dirt in my life."

It's the end of a long, hard day at Holy Drilling, the company founded in the 1930s by Steve's grandfather, expanded by his dad and now operated by his brother. Steve is no longer on the payroll - three back-to-back radio hits have put his music career in high gear - but visiting the shop triggers strong memories.

"Looking back, working for my dad gave me some of the best times of my life," confides Steve, whose latest single, "The Hunger," is in the Top 30. "Toiling in the grit and grime keeps you grounded. But I did work my butt off. Heck, I still have callouses on my hands, and I haven't worked regularly at the shop in five years.

"But my dad and mom supported my music when others didn't. I once overheard a guy say I was looking for that pot of gold and I'd never get it. I owe that guy a lot of thanks - quotes like his kept me going."

Steve's dad, Joe, died of a heart attack in March of 1999.

"We completely rebuilt this rig in memory of my dad," Steve says as he hoists himself onto the drilling rig, which bores foundation holes into the Texas earth. "He supported five families and three different generations with this rig." The rebuilders included Steve; his brother, David; a cousin, Frank Holy; and lifelong friend Red Reynolds - a local singer/songwriter who sparked Steve's interest in the music business.

Earlier in the day, Steve returned to St. Philip the Apostle School, whose elementary and junior high schools he attended.

"Steve was a good kid who got in trouble," explains Shirley Lange, who taught Steve eighth grade math and science, and is now the school's principal.

Steve nods. "I spent a bunch of time in the principal's office. I even made a paddle in wood shop that was used to give me licks. I was always joking around or imitating some singer in class."

Stepping inside one of his old classrooms, he adds, "I used to break dance in that back corner."

All but one of Steve's seven brothers and sisters attended St. Philip's. "Steve's parents provided a wonderful home environment for all their kids," recalls Lange. "The children grew up with sound morals, strong values."

Staring out a classroom window, Steve admits, "Mrs. Lange was a major inspiration for me. She was tough, but always encouraging. Thank God I had her and Mrs. Rita Malik as teachers. Without their guidance, there's no telling where I'd be right now."

Where he is heading right now is Johnnie High's Country Music Revue in Arlington, between Dallas and Fort Worth. "When I auditioned for Johnnie High, he cut me off 10 seconds into my song and said, 'That's good.' I thought he wasn't impressed." Not so. High was simply a fast judge of strong talent. Steve became a regular member of the popular regional revue, appearing weekly from 1993 until 1997, when he came to Nashville.

"Johnnie is the best emcee ever," declares Steve. "He's definitely been a key to my career and to the career of many other country artists." Other artists whose careers were launched in Johnnie's revue include LeAnn Rimes, John Anderson, Lee Ann Womack, Gary Morris, Linda Davis and newcomer trio 3 Of Hearts.

"From the first time Steve walked out on the stage at my revue," notes High, "he had what it takes to be a success - the way he sang, moved, looked and acted. Some people have some of those things working for them, but it's rare for one person to have all of them. The impact he has on an audience is remarkable."

Indeed, Steve was right at home when he debuted on the Grand Ole Opry last October. "The Opry is so much like Johnnie High's," he explains. "The stage and balcony are set up the same. I was nervous, but I felt like I'd done it before."

That Opry debut netted him praise from the evening's host, Opry star Johnny Russell. After Steve's two encores, Johnny told the crowd he hadn't seen that kind of audience reaction since 1990, when he introduced then-new-comer Garth Brooks.

Steve hops in his car and zips to brother David's house to share a few pizzas with his mom, Barbara, grand-mother Floriana, some of his brothers and sisters, and nine nephews and nieces. He turns on the radio and catches the last lines of "The Hunger." The deejay, Bill Kinder from KSCS, raves about Steve and the tune. Steve decides to call him on his cell phone.

"Hey, Bill, this is Steve Holy. I want to thank you for playing my record." They kid around a bit and Steve hangs up.

A few moments later, Kinder plays their recorded conversation on the air. "Man," Steve grins. "The magic of radio."