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Issue 168

The Haunting Soul Music of Lonnie Holley

From deep soul explorations of topical subjects and the plight of the poor to musing reflectively on art, life, God and outer space

BY Andrew Hultkrans in Frieze , Music | 17 DEC 14

Lonnie Holley on the cover of Just Before Music, 2012. Courtesy: Dust-to-Digital; photograph: Karekin Goekjian

In 1927, Ed Bell, a mysterious bluesman from Fort Deposit, Alabama, recorded a sublime, idiosyncratic tune titled ‘Mamlish Blues’, the meaning of which (despite Bell’s introductory pledge to tell us ‘just what they mean’) eludes scholars to this day. In the mid-1950s, a pianist born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, started calling himself Sun Ra, dressing like an ancient alien and performing afrofuturistic jazz with an ensemble he dubbed ‘the Arkestra’. A few years later, in 1959, Rick Hall founded FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Along with its spin-off, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, FAME would lend inexplicable magic to countless soul and rock recordings of the 1960s and ’70s. That same year, the Alabama-born Louvin Brothers released Satan Is Real, a collection of fire-and-brimstone country gospel with a cover image depicting the brothers cavorting in hell’s rubble, illuminated by burning tyres and overseen by a bucktoothed, cut-out plywood devil.

In histories of American vernacular music, Alabama gets overshadowed by its more celebrated and productive neighbour states (Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia), but its contribution has been considerable and, as the above examples suggest, often marked by irreducible eccentricity. The latest musical oddity to emerge from the state – Birmingham-born, 64-year-old Lonnie Holley – was, until the 2012 release of his debut album, Just Before Music, known for his career in an entirely different field: art. Since 1979, when he found his calling while carving tombstones out of discarded sandstone for two nieces who had died in a house fire, Holley has produced hundreds of artworks, mostly assemblage sculptures made from broken or abandoned everyday objects and trash. His singular personality, near-clinical obsession with the creative act, and unruly sculpture garden at his former residence (reminiscent of Georgia ‘folk artist’ Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens), relegated Holley to the vexed category of ‘outsider art’, but in this realm he is relatively well-known, having been a prized artist in regional collector William Arnett’s stable since 1986. Over the years, his work has been exhibited at the American Folk Art Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the White House. In 2014, Portland Museum of Art staged a solo show of his work and he was included in the Prospect.3 Biennial, New Orleans, which opened last October.

Holley’s bio beggars belief, but to the extent that there are embellishments, they jibe perfectly with his sui generis persona. An African American born in humble circumstances in the Jim Crow south, Holley claims he was the seventh of 27 children (the proverbial ‘seventh son’). Having been given by his birth mother to a burlesque dancer when he was a small boy, he was apparently traded soon afterwards by his adoptive mother for a bottle of whiskey. Later, he spent time in a brutal reform school and had a job at a drive-in theatre, where he internalized the soundtracks and sound effects of classic horror movies, a self-declared but imperceptible influence on his own music.

For years, Holley sang to himself while working on his art and regularly made home recordings of his improvised compositions, accompanying himself on cheap electronic keyboards, playing only the black keys. Arnett’s son Matt, a friend of Holley’s, became aware of this musical activity and arranged a small concert for the benefit of Lance Ledbetter, the owner of Dust-to-Digital, an Atlanta-based boutique reissue label best known for Goodbye, Babylon (2003), a staggering box set of early American gospel transferred from 78s and annotated with curatorial rigour. Ledbetter was duly impressed, immediately grasping the link between Holley and the ghostly, long-dead voices his label was founded to resurrect. Here was what music critic Greil Marcus called the ‘old, weird America’, alive and operating in 21st-century Alabama. Dust-to-Digital released Just Before Music in 2012 to critical acclaim, following it in 2013 with the even more adventurous Keeping a Record of It.

Sun Ra in a scene from Space is the Place, 1974. Courtesy: British Film Institute

Most writing to date on Holley’s unique music does not go far beyond characterizing it as ‘unclassifiable’. Yet, while it may not slot neatly into any known musical genre, echoes of earlier styles and artists can be detected. Holley’s deep soul explorations of topical subjects and the plight of the poor have antecedents in Gil Scott-Heron’s sociopolitical laments on Winter in America (1974), Eugene McDaniels’s slow-boil jeremiads on Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse (1971), and even Marvin Gaye’s 1971 song ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’. His vocal mannerisms – talk-singing, oblique lyricism, phrase repetition – at times resemble Van Morrison’s more abstract efforts: ‘Beside You’ from Astral Weeks (1968) or ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River’ from Veedon Fleece (1974). He is fond of what could be called the ‘Sam Cooke trill’ (the way, for instance, Cooke turns the ‘know’ of ‘I know’ into a four-note phrase in his 1964 song ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’), often using it to bend the last vowel of a line. Long-held notes resolve to a chewy vibrato reminiscent of Al Jarreau and other jazz vocal acrobats. He occasionally adopts the type of gargled growl associated with Louis Armstrong and Tom Waits.

Particularly on Just Before Music, Holley’s tinkling electric piano impressionistically traces variations on one rich, unchanging root chord, recalling the quieter moments of Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way (1969). Keeping a Record of It is more sonically diverse, adding variegated synthesizer sounds, guest players and non-keyboard instruments to Holley’s musical palette. One song on the latter album, ‘From the Other Side of the Pulpit’, featuring instrumental assistance from members of Deerhunter and Black Lips, evokes West African highlife music played by an amateur gamelan orchestra. Finally – and this is perhaps an unfair, sacred-to-profane comparison – his simple keyboards and outré, improvised lyrics also call to mind the late Wesley Willis, a homeless, schizophrenic street performer in Chicago whose self-produced cassettes were treasured by 1990s punks and hipsters. That said, where Willis ranted about McDonald’s and whooping Batman’s ass, Holley muses reflectively on art, life, God, the economy, technology and outer space. Willis was proudly obscene; Holley approaches the divine.

While Holley seems not to fit into any academy or tradition, he is a (perhaps unwitting) member of a micro-tradition. John Corbett identified it in his essay ‘Brothers from Another Planet: The Space Madness of Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sun Ra and George Clinton’ (published in his 1994 book Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein): that of an eccentric afrofuturism which conflates ancient African and Egyptian aesthetics with science fiction, and associates racial disenfranchisement on Earth with a forgotten ancestry in outer space – literal alienation. I would add hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa and Ultramagnetic MC Kool Keith to Corbett’s mix, along with Holley. He is more rural and ‘folksy’ than the others, but otherwise he checks the boxes: aliases (‘The Sandman’); bizarre, self-designed clothes and accessories (Holley’s ‘anti-bling’ jewellery is especially outrageous); wordplay; references to technology (space shuttles, computer chips, motherboards, satellites, mobile phones, HDTV, digitization of media, gigabytes and megabytes); and even intergalactic elephants (used by Clinton and Perry, and by Holley in his song ‘Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants’). As if to confirm the mothership connection to his ‘brothers’, Holley was the opening act at a Sun Ra tribute concert last year at Vulcan Park and Museum in Birmingham.

In his liner notes to Just Before Music, Holley writes: ‘These are stories and they’re meant to be heard, and we need to transform how we think about any music.’ Right on. These are his Mamlish Blues and he’s going to tell us just what they mean. If we don’t understand, it’s our own damn fault.

Andrew Hultkrans is a writer based in New York, USA. He is the author of Forever Changes (Bloomsbury, 2003).