Lonnie Holley’s Glorious Improvisations
By: Amanda Petrusich
The centerpiece of the artist and musician Lonnie Holley’s new album, “Mith,” is a brutal and dissonant song called “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America.” The title could refer to the nation right now, or to Holley’s childhood in the pre-civil-rights-era South. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1950, the seventh of twenty-seven children, and brought up by an itinerant burlesque dancer who may have stolen him from his biological mother. At the age of four, he says, he was traded for a bottle of whiskey. Later, after he fled the home of an abusive foster parent, he was hit by a car and declared brain-dead. At eleven, he was sent to the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, an infamous juvenile facility in Montgomery County, where he picked cotton and collected trash from the side of the highway. After he got out, he took a job as a short-order cook at Disney World. Eventually, he found work as a gravedigger.
Holley is surely aware that there is significant power in mythmaking. Art that feels like the product of an unlikely journey is frequently presumed to be more authentic; if that journey is marked by disenfranchisement and injustice, the work becomes doubly profound. The culture fetishizes and rewards an unorthodox path—or, at least, the appearance of an unorthodox path—so there is value, sometimes, in embellishing the details. The title of Holley’s new album (and its purposeful misspelling) seems like a nod to the practice and the tradition of folklore.
For the record: the burlesque dancer who raised Holley was supposed to watch him for only a few days. When she and Holley visited a so-called whiskey house on the edge of the Alabama state fairgrounds, the proprietor noticed that Holley appeared underfed, and offered to take care of him. He didn’t flee, but got lost while searching for his birth mother. Holley’s paternal grandmother eventually took him in. She was a devout Baptist, and hoped that Holley might become a preacher, but he found that the church alone couldn’t contain his generative spirit.
Holley figured out that he was a talented sculptor while fashioning ad-hoc tombstones for his sister’s two young children, who had died in a house fire. His career as a visual artist began in earnest in 1981, when he delivered a few examples of his sandstone carvings to the director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, who agreed to display them. In the mid-eighties, Holley met Bill Arnett, a collector known for sponsoring and promoting self-taught black artists from the South. Arnett helped Holley place his work in more museums and private collections. (Arnett has also raised the profile of the sculptor Thornton Dial, and of the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.) Holley’s sculptures have since been displayed in the White House Rose Garden and the Smithsonian Institution, and at the United Nations. He assembles the pieces, which are heavy with personal and political meaning, from scavenged widgets and rusty bits of trash that he often lashes together with barbed wire.
Holley didn’t begin releasing music until 2012, when he was sixty-two. His voice is sometimes gruff and sometimes honeyed—a mixture of Tom Waits and Marvin Gaye. He started out creating songs on a Casio keyboard that he purchased at a Goodwill store, and first recorded his work on a karaoke machine from a flea market. With some assistance from Arnett’s son, Matt, who now manages Holley’s music career, Holley signed to Dust-to-Digital, an Atlanta-based record label that specializes in the artful excavation and repackaging of lost or underappreciated music. “Mith,” which was released by Jagjaguwar last month, is Holley’s third record.