How could any but the singular artist himself describe the work of Lonnie Holley? His life—so rich with tragic kismet and transfixing nuance and awesome feeling—belongs capsulized in something like the Smithsonian, an existence reflecting the magnitude of self-actualization and resilience, his music just one ecstatic aspect of an autobiographical multimedia library. Since his birth in 1950 Alabama, Holley has been artistically responding and subject to America’s most arcane systems of oppression: the Jim Crow South, the trauma of racially motivated domestic terrorism, the abuse of eminent domain, the institutional apartheid inked into the founding documents of this country. How could any but he reflect accurately on the triumph of his impossibly beatific, transcendent, clairvoyant, and heartbreaking 2018 release for Jagjaguwar, Mith—where the monolith of his life pours into every swirl of brass, every swarm of percussion, every improvised piano run, every mesmeric confession?
“See, the whole thing that I’m saying this morning that I haven’t said to any other interviewer,” the 68-year-old polymath tells me when I reach him by phone, “is that nature has been my coach.” Again: how do we parse this further than its essence? “From my little-bitty childhood, doing music my way, tapping on rocks and broken pieces of glass to get sounds, or hearing sound, or being trained and coached by just the actions of nature itself.” Making stream-of-consciousness song in one form or another for decades, improvising keyboard incantations on his debut 2012 Dust-to-Digital release Just Before Music, the sheer melody of his very conversation—it’s the production values and attention-to-detail of Mith that sets it apart, not only in Holley’s endless canon (though this is really only his third “record”) but also as a landmark record of the year. “I don’t want to put myself out there like I should be some heroic, hit-slanging artist—because I’m not. I’m just a human,” he says. “I didn’t think my music was gonna get this far. But it wouldn’t have been able to get this far without the orchestration of a kind of togetherness: Let’s take art. Let’s take music. Let’s take the landscape. Let’s give them all of that. Let’s take Lonnie Holley getting out there and learning how to be a coach to his own music. I had to learn.”
It’s as if Lonnie Holley has centrifugally attracted the right people right at this moment for the ultimate potency of his message at this moment in history—because this is the perfect moment. “It’s important to be the star of where you are,” he says. “A lot of times we try to be stars in other places. But being a star in your place may be for the betterment of right there.” Because there’s no opportunity naturally to create a memory. Because all the information in the history of mankind is beamed into your pocket—so why bother even looking, it’s all just right there? So to be able to so specifically and cosmically translate the pure density of this trauma, through expansive and inclusive sound—there’s something to be gained, here, beyond a listening experience. “Yes, also a key to the gates that need to be opened, where humans can re-enter,” Holley says. “A lot of times we leave out the house, and a lot of times we slam the door. And we forget to take the key. I’m more of a key to get back into certain situations.” Holley’s every word seethes with the weight of U.S. history, even as he hangs up the phone, offering an anticapitalist off-the-cuff aphorism: “Really growing up second-by-second, we can wear all of these shoes, while only wearing one pair in our graves.” — DALE W. EISINGER
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