Those familiar with 20th Century self-taught artists, in particular African-American creators will be interested in the new CD of songs by Lonnie Holley on the Dust to Digital label. Co-produced by Stephen Lance Ledbetter and Matt Arnett. Lance of course co-produced the Grammy-nominated release Take Me to the Water with me several years ago, and Matt is of course from the Souls Grown Deep organization which published the mammoth (and essential) Souls Grown Deep volumes on Southern Black art which grew from the collecting and scholarship of Bill Arnett.
I first met Lonnie Holley 20 years ago, when he was living on (and in) a remarkable sculptural environment he created in Birmingham, Alabama…a massive jumble of rusted objects repurposed into sculpture, visions, lessons and mojo near the Airport. While we spoke (or rather, while Lonnie spun a continuous rap and I listened) he created a hand-sized carving out of foundry sand with a nail file while a handful of his many children played in the nooks and crannies of his yard. I left impressed but suspicious. To this day I have considered Mr. Holly half-spiritual griot and half carnival barker. Both, in my book, are noble and valid. Either way he is a considerable communicator.
I once made a list of all the known and prominent self-taught, or "outsider" artists who also sang or played instruments. (A year ago, when Lance sent me a dub of one song here, I immediately asked in surprise "who is playing the piano" without thinking much. Of course it was Lonnie.) But Sister Gertrude Morgan, Henry Speller, Son Thomas, S. L. Jones, Charles and Noah Kinney, Anderson Johnson, Howard Finster and Jimmy Sudduth all played some music. It goes hand in hand…the creative impulse is cultural after all, and visual arts often come from the same place as musical. They are one and the same in many ways.
Lonnie comes up with a handful of songs in perfect synch with his sculptural creations. A contemporary praise singer of sorts. There is a consistency in his vision which travels to his fingers, back to his eyes and now through his voice. One voice. He may claim he is the voice of his ancestors, or of the earth, but Lonnie is really his own voice built upon deep roots. Musically, the disc is more than anything a pleasing groove, Not quite the deep Alabama blues drone of Junior Kimbrough which came out of the Fat Possum hills, but you WILL hear descending phrases which sound like the bluesman,only here soft and almost jazz-like. The lyrics are moods with repeated phrases as much as poems, and all are what one could be called vintage Lonnie. Consistent with his vision.
There is lovely packaging, of course. Both Souls Grown Deep and Dust to Digital do that like no one else. Holley writes the intro, and there is a ten page insert with splendid examples of his art as well as lyrics. If you collect Dust to Digital releases, and you should, it is recommended. If you are interested in the relationship between the visual and aural traditions of African-American culture, likewise.
Dust to Digital continues to be the most interesting, entertaining and DEEP labels of recorded sound in business. A striking video of Mr. Holley working follows: