At 63, Lonnie Holley has been making music for almost half of his life. The Birmingham, Ala., native acquired his first keyboard in the early '80s, slowly but insistently establishing a touch for simple but expansive melodies. His tones conjure a delicate sense of the cosmos, while the minimal, often synthetic means of percussion counter with real-world grime. It's like Sun Ra playing over Wesley Willis' leftovers, and it is breathtaking. Lyrically, Holley's ruminations on life and history merge earthly realities with fantastical visions, exploring each on equal footing. The results are unique and powerful, executed with maturity and confidence.
"Ever since I can remember, music has been in my life," Holley says. He was raised in a house with a Rockola jukebox and eagerly recalls early musical memories at the Alabama State Fairgrounds and a nearby drive-in theater. Music is an essential part of his life, but until recently, it was an aspect that not too many knew about. Released last year by the boutique imprint Dust-to-Digital, Just Before Music was Holley's debut LP.
Holley is renowned for his visual art, most notably his uncanny sculptures that utilize scavenged materials to explore prickly aspects of life in the South. His career began in 1979 when he created striking carvings for the graves of his niece and nephew, who had died in a house fire. By 1981, a selection of his work was accepted to the Birmingham Museum of Art. As time progressed, he expanded into painting and sculpture, and his work infiltrated such high-profile settings as the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the White House. But his music remained a mostly private passion.
"It wasn't that I was afraid of sharing it," Holley laughs. "It was the outlet: I didn't have one."
That all changed when Holley caught the attention of Matt Arnett, an Atlanta-based photographer and filmmaker specializing in work that explores the black experience in the South. While in Alabama doing research, he stumbled upon Holley's music. Already a fan of his art, Arnett decided that his songs were equally worthy of attention. He pushed Holley to enter the studio, serving as a co-producer for Just Before Music, and hooked him up with Dust-to-Digital, a mostly reissue-based label with a taste for unheralded Americana oddities. It was a perfect fit.
Now, Holley is on a musical tear. Following Just Before Music's release in November, he toured steadily, relishing the road and the opportunity to play his songs for fresh faces. As a songwriter, Holley is far from tapped out. Last month, he unveiled Keeping a Record of It, a second album that's even more arresting than its predecessor.
"From the Other Side of the Pulpit" is one of two songs that include contributions from Deerhunter's Bradford Cox and The Black Lips' Cole Alexander. While their main gigs are aggressive in their psychedelic bent, they take Holley's hypnotic lead here, assisting him in an ethereal soul number that chimes and drifts while leaving room for the clatter of found-sound instrumentation — snapping sticks and rustling tarps, ladders and wheelbarrows that bang and scrape — thus proving the profound connection between Holley's art and his music. The words are equally evocative. "The Start of a River's Run (One Drop)" draws new life from a tired image, describing a river that once carried slave ships inland: "That old river is how we got here," he howls, longing for a land of unity that lies "just across the river." His poetry digs deep into race relations without becoming a sermon, an incredible feat, however you slice it.
"Strength and courage to do something is what we're speaking of," Holley says. "Faith is something that we hope for, [but you also need] to have the strength and the courage to do something about it. I experienced the '60s and the civil rights era. I grew up in that. I was a part of it. Now that I've gotten to the point where I can talk back about it, because back then I could not read and write that well, I am able to orchestrate it through art. It's an outlet for me, and it is wonderful for me to experience it."