Lonnie Holley is 63 years old, and this is his second album to be commercially released. He claims to have made music all his life, though he first entered a recording studio in 2010. The first album, Just Before Music, was released in 2012 by Dust-to-Digital, the same label behind 2013’s Keeping a Record of It. Music for Holley is just another piece of his artistic life. He makes sculptures, drawings, paintings, photographs and harder-to-classify pieces.
Holley’s music is entwined with his art which is entwined with his life. Quoth Wikipedia: “Holley began his artistic life in 1979 by carving tombstones for his sister’s two children who died in a house fire.” Holley was one of 27 children. Dust-to-Digital’s press materials tell the story of his Alabama childhood like this: “From the age of five, Holley worked various jobs: picking up trash at a drive-in movie theatre, washing dishes, and cooking. He lived in a whiskey house, on the state fairgrounds, and in several foster homes.”
That’s just a piece of his difficult life story, a story that comes through in his music, perhaps more overtly on Just Before Music than Keeping a Record of It. Overstating his life story would threaten to overshadow the impact of Holley’s music, the deep-throated way he channels meandering visions that are alternately mystical and grounded in the dirt. He presents himself as a seer on the one hand, or a teacher even, and a diarist on the other. And all of these visions, morals and memories run together and flow right out of him with a direct but tender energy, over his synthesizer-playing, which spirals and entrances in a way that resonates with his singing. A 2004 exhibit of his visual art was titled, “Do We Think Too Much? I Don’t Think We Can Ever Stop.”
The second song on Keeping a Record of It is titled “The Start of a River’s Run (One Drop)”. The upwards of seven minutes song represents the way his visions seem to touch on childhood memories but also fly away from them, or flow out of them. It also showcases the strange way the instruments play against and along with his singing, sometimes clanging in opposition, sometimes flowing along. The way he sings of the river as a permanent presence in the lives of our parents, our grandparents, our ancestors (“it ran for your grandmother…gonna run for you”), is at once disturbing and comforting.
The river in the singer’s mind is tied up with childhood memories of running away and trying to cross it, and with tales of slaves being taken in ships and spread around, far from their homes. But the river is also a clear comfort, the fact that it is and will be there. It is eternal. It stands in for our souls, for the stirrings of our creative capabilities, for the human capacity for survival. Near the end the song goes to silence, then some notes clang down, then more silence, then Holley sings, more gently now, “Here we are waiting on the crossing of the river, you and I waiting just to cross the river…” The human condition.
Most of the songs carry this degree of meaning echoing through the words, Holley’s voice and the music at once, in complementary and stirringly contradictory ways. There’s the gentle opener “Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants”, a love letter disguised as a psychedelic trip, with afro-futurist tendencies. There’s “Mind On”, the aural equivalent of that art-exhibit title about our brains and all they contain—all the pain, all the worry, all the beautiful energy. There’s Holley and artist Lillian Blades singing a tribute to the sun and the water.
There’s “From the Other Side of the Pulpit”, a 13-minute piece where the music is by Holley with two indie-rock musicians, Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Cole Alexander of the Black Lips. Holley’s singing here ends up at its most ragged and stripped-to-its-innards, as he remembers church experiences of his childhood and then climbs through them, beyond them, to something darker that lives past them. He looks past the preacher’s lesson and sees the struggles of his ancestors, sees tsunamis and earthquakes, sees financial hardships, see wars. He sees “a serpent in the pit of Christ”. The music builds in both beauty and anguish, the trio of musicians playing off each other in a way that eventually carries us off, and carries us through the rest of the album.
If overplaying his life story might overshadow the music’s power, underplaying it does a disservice to where Lonnie Holley is coming from. He writes in the album’s liner notes, “I believe I was chosen to be an artist because I can take my life and tell somebody else about it…it’s important for me to keep a record of my life.” Keeping a record of it is what he’s doing with his life. It’s also what we’re doing, taking a piece of the river that is his creative energy flow, and trapping it momentarily, in the form of a record. Put the record on, though, and again it flows.