The Life and Times of Lonnie Holley, Survivor in a Fucked-Up America
This year's most powerful protest album was made by a 68-year-old man from Alabama who makes junk sculptures.
Photos by Timothy Duffy
In early 2017, Lonnie Holley was in Richmond, VA, a few days shy of his 67th birthday. He was on a tour that was slowly making its way to Washington, D.C., where he had a show scheduled at the Smithsonian—and where Donald Trump had been sworn in as president a few weeks prior. “We were just talking about the state of the world,” recalls Matt Arnett, Holley’s manager and longtime confidante. The nation was reeling. And somebody asked Holley, “How did you sleep?”
“I woke up in a fucked-up America,” the artist and experimental musician replied. He liked the sound of that: “Write that down!” There was a scramble for a notebook. Somebody—one of Holley’s bandmates—located one and scribbled the sentence down. Later that day, as Holley was preparing a setlist for his performance in Richmond, Arnett read him the contents of the notebook. The eight words caught Holley’s attention. “Yes,” he said, “I want to sing that.”
A year and a half later, a song called “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America” is the woozy centerpiece of Holley’s utterly fascinating new album, MITH. In July, the song and its accompanying video—in which Holley is seen sleeping amidst his own yard sculptures, full of patriotic and biblical iconography—brought Holley the most attention he has received since he signed his first record deal eight years ago. Over a groaning cacophony of drums and trombone, Holley invokes a cruel America populated by walls and vampires, death and “humanity crying.” His voice is gruff and untrained, a wobbly croon that rises to an increasingly agitated yelp. “[The song] feels like it’s penetrating the dialogue out there in the world,” Arnett says, noting that YouTube has been pairing Holley’s video with Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.”
MITH largely sustains this level of surrealist dread for 77 minutes, as Holley holds forth on subjects like racial profiling (“I’m a Suspect”) and access to clean water (“There Was Always Water”). The music is abstract, with hints of free jazz and R&B coiled loosely around Holley’s singing, which follows an idiosyncratic melodic logic. There were no rehearsals. Each time he plays live, Holley improvises his lyrics anew, which unfold like free-associative stories from an ageless prophet. “They’re never written down,” Arnett says. “He never does the same thing the same way twice.” “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America” did not exist, in any discernible form, before Holley performed it that night in Richmond.
MITH was recorded in various cities over a span of five years, with contributions from ambient musician Laraaji, the experimental duo Nelson Patton, and the late singer-songwriter and Shins member Richard Swift. It is the year’s most unusual protest album, made by a black man from Alabama who makes art out of trash and is old enough to remember the Jim Crow south yet began his professional recording career as recently as Barack Obama’s presidency.
“All of my life, I been fucked up in America,” Holley, who recently signed to Jagjaguwar, at the age of 68, tells me. “Can you imagine me being born out of a woman, having to grow up, having to eat and be clothed? Can you imagine what my grandparents had to do, as sharecroppers or Alabama field hands? We would have thought the 60s was enough of marching and being abused. Then you turn right around—2017, 2016—and put back on your political marching shoes.”
He begins to sing to me: “‘I got on my new marching shoes! Got on my new marching shoes!’ See, we got new shoes on now.”
* * *
Holley is telling me his astonishing life story at a Manhattan bar called The Grey Dog, where he greets me by exclaiming “Thumbs up!” and then extending his fist in a strange sort of half-fistbump in which both of our thumbs are raised. (The same gesture is pictured on his album cover.) He’s visiting from his adopted hometown of Atlanta for an event celebrating his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Holley is wearing a plaid shirt and has tufts of grey in his dreadlocks; several dozen bracelets and rings jingle up and down his arms. (The bracelets protect his wrists when he makes sculptures out of barbed wire, he has said.)
As a musician, Holley has collaborated with Bradford Cox (who played on his album Keeping a Record Of It), toured with Animal Collective, and been sampled by Bon Iver. As a visual artist, he has been amassing a reputation as a singular American outsider artist since those guys were in diapers. These days, he is represented by the James Fuentes Gallery in New York. His specialty is constructing eye-popping sculptures and carvings from found junkyard materials—animal bones, broken pipes, bits of steel, anything. “I’ve been digging in landfills,” he says. “I been digging in graves.”
Logically speaking, though, Lonnie Holley should be one of those graves. He should be dead.
He tells me this 30 minutes after we first meet. “If I hadn’t met this cat’s father”—he gestures towards Arnett, whose father was a wealthy and eccentric art collector who championed Holley’s work—“I think I would’ve been dead. None of this would’ve been on the table.”
This could refer to any number of miracles: that he embarked on an experimental music career north of his 60th birthday. That his visually arresting folk-art creations have been exhibited all over the nation, including the White House Rose Garden and the United Nations. That he is here, in Manhattan, to discuss his work at the goddamn Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Or that he is alive at all. Holley’s music is peppered with near-death experiences. On the album’s 18-minute centerpiece, “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship,” he envisions himself—clinging to life without food and water on the middle passage, watching “unaccountable bodies” drowning in the water. Ripples of piano and synthesizer circle Holley’s narrative like turbulent waters along the journey. There is a narrow escape, as there has often been in Holley’s actual life.
The story of Holley’s childhood in Jim Crow-era Alabama reads like the plot of an 1800s dime novel. Even then, it might seem difficult to believe. What follows is based on Holley’s own account; the details are difficult if not impossible to independently verify.
Holley was born in Birmingham on February 10, 1950. He was the seventh of his mother’s 27 children, but only remained with his birth mother for a year and a half. “This lady took me,” Holley says. The woman in question had offered to help breastfeed Holley but for some reason never brought him back to his mother. “This woman was a burlesque dancer,” Holley says. “She took me around with the state fair and carnival. I was a carnie child.”
Eventually, he says, she traded the four-year-old Holley for a bottle of whiskey to an Alabama whiskey house family. “I was like the Jungle Book child,” Holley says. “I was cast away from society. As quick as I would get something, somebody else would take it: ‘That’s too good for you. You ain’t nothing but a ditch child.’”
He spent much of his childhood with this new family. His adopted father turned out to be an abusive drunk. Holley tried to flee and got run over by a car, leaving him with injuries so severe that he remained unconscious for three months; he says he was pronounced brain-dead at one point. At age 12, his runaway attempts landed him in the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, a brutal institution with labor conditions largely indistinguishable from slavery. The school would become infamous for sentencing black children to grueling farmwork and horrid filth, later spawning a federal lawsuit. Holly, miserable and illiterate, was forced to pick cotton. “This was a place where you got a whooping every day,” he says. “They [were] beating on these little brains.”
Holley had his first child at 15 and cycled through a bevy of odd jobs: cook at Disney World, tomato picker. He dug graves with his grandmother; that was a “spiritual experience for me,” he says. “I learnt to be correct. One day I had dug this grave. But it was crooked. And my grandmama said, ‘Get back down in that hole and straighten it up. You can’t put a straight coffin in a crooked hole.’
Around 1979, Holley entered a deep depression: He was deep in debt, and his sister’s young children had died in a house fire. He tried to kill himself, but survived. The family couldn’t afford memorial stones for the children, so Holley carved makeshift tombstones out of sandstone. It was a revelation. Making art pulled him out of the depression. Pretty soon, his Birmingham home was surrounded by what a New York Times profile describes as “a wild, metastasizing yard-art environment sprawling over two acres of family property.”
Holley remembers the first time someone called him an artist. “Our house had caught on fire, and the fireman got out and asked, ‘Who’s the artist?’ And he said, ‘Whoever it is is not an amateur.’” Soon, Holley summoned the confidence to introduce his work to the director of the Birmingham Museum of Art.
During the 1980s, as his art career took off, Holley was constantly making rudimentary tapes of his songs, primarily for his own amusement. He had been singing “pretty well all my life,” he says. (As a kid, he slept with his head near a Rockola Jukebox, and he remembers feeling the speakers’ vibrations as he slept.)
“[I’d] show up at his house, and he’s got his keyboard and he’s singing,” Arnett recalls. “For years, he would pop in tapes, and me and him were the only ones who ever heard it. I was like, ‘This is amazing.’” Yet the music was difficult to categorize. Some of it reminded Arnett of Gregorian chant; some of it reminded him of Bob Dylan. The through-line was Holley’s unusual voice. “It’s not rock & roll,” Arnett says. “It’s not like [gospel music]. And it’s not jazz. I was like, ‘I like it, but what is it?’ I didn’t know what to call it, so I didn’t know what to do with it.”
Holley describes his music in simpler terms: “I just call it singing about life as it naturally is.”
Yet Holley’s songs languished in obscurity for decades. Finally, in 2010, Lance Ledbetter, the founder of the archival label Dust-to-Digital, watched him perform at Arnett’s home. “He started playing and singing, and before I got to the couch, I stopped in my tracks,” Ledbetter later told Pitchfork. “His voice, the way he played, his lyrics—It was something I’d never heard before.” The label signed Holley and wound up releasing his first two albums, 2012’s Just Before Music and 2013’s Keeping a Record Of It.
At the age of 60, Holley was a newly minted small-time indie hero.
* * *
On a Friday in early September, Holley is sweating onstage in an auditorium at The Met.
The audience seems to be a mix of fans and kindly senior citizens who wandered in without a clue what they were in for. A few of them exit when Holley begins performing, hunched at a keyboard with a homespun quilt draped over it. He is accompanied by the group Nelson Patton, which improvises ambient grooves around his cosmic, half-sung visions. The songs are mostly new creatures, born mid-show; they are not recognizable from the album, but they share the same sense of floating around in Holley’s subconscious—his remarkable life and survival, his keen sense of American injustice. At one point, Holley repeats the words “Too young to die / Too young to die,” and I wonder if he’s riffing on the death of Mac Miller, which had been confirmed just five hours earlier.
Before performing, Holley is interviewed onstage by the performance artist Helga Davis. “Your work is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What effect does that have on you?” she asks. Holley sidesteps the question and begins talking about spirituality, prayers, the educational function of museums—he frequently speaks in riddles and bewildering tangents. And he adores wordplay; MITH, the new album, takes its title from a memorial stone he found for a family named Smith. The “S” was missing, and Holley liked it that way. (“I use it as myth,” Holley tells me. “ Myth-tical. Myth-terious.”)
Davis is determined to get a direct answer. “I’m gonna stop you,” she says, pausing his rambling. She asks again. And again. Finally, he admits he is trying to keep from crying. Even with the art-world establishment’s approval, Holley mostly just seems happy that he’s still here, making art unflinchingly himself". He is still the child who was traded for a bottle of whiskey, the junkyard visionary building art from what’s been left behind in a fucked-up America.
“If the director of the museum came through the door and said, ‘There’s a spot on that floor and we want you to clean it,’ I would get down on my knees and I would clean it,” Holley tells Davis. “I’m gonna be who I am until they close the coffin.”
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