Lonnie Holley and the ‘MITH’ of America

The outlier artist and musician reckons with the 21st century

Music Lonnie2 1 14
Photo credit: Matt Arnett
CUTLINE: AMERICAN HORROR STORY: Lonnie Holley on stage, flanked by Dave Nelson (left) and Marlon Patton.

In 21st-century America, not just in the land of cotton, old times, they are not forgotten. On the contrary, daily headlines remind us in myriad ways that we are living in a reactionary, regressive period in the nation’s history, rife with racism and demagoguery, riven with pain and prejudice.

Against this backdrop of devolutionary discordance, Lonnie Holley drops MITH, the third album (and first in five years) by the 68-year-old Birmingham, Alabama-born artist and musician now based in Atlanta. MITH is named for an artwork created by Holley in 1993. A deceptively simple assemblage, MITH comprises a rectangular headstone fragment from which the ‘S” in “SMITH” has been broken off and laid atop a concrete beam, forming a cross.

Like its sculptural inspiration, MITH is an imaginatively constructed analogue representing a life burdened by unspeakable persecution from which spiritual development and redemption are manifest. Accompanying Holley on these 10 songs are Dave Nelson (trombone and loops) and Marlon Patton (drums, percussion, Moog synth bass pedals), along with guest contributions by Shahzad Ismaily (synthesizers), Laraaji (piano), Sam Gendel (soprano sax), the late Richard Swift (drums) and Elizabeth LaPrelle, Anna Roberts-Gevalt, and Courtney Hartman (background vocals).

“I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America” is the heart and soul of MITH. A video for the song, co-directed by Holley’s manager, Matt Arnett, and Ethan Payne, a musician, documentary filmmaker, and photographer, was released online as a preview several weeks before the album’s September 21 release date via Jagjaguwar Records.

“The original idea was to shoot the whole thing in my art studio,” Holley says. “I loved Matt's idea about having the bed be surrounded with all the materials from my studio, but I also loved the idea of waking up somewhere other than my studio, and Joe's place was the first place I thought of. It's the opposite of fucked up. It was like the place of hope I'd hope to wake up in.”

“Joe’s place” is the studio of Joe Minter, sculptor/assemblist and longtime colleague of Holley’s from Birmingham. Other locations in the video include the late Thornton Dial’s artist studio, Grace Hill Cemetery where Holley’s grandmother is buried, and a grassy parcel of land overlooking the Birmingham Airport. On that same acreage once stood Holley’s sprawling outdoor art environment containing thousands of sculptures and assemblages, most of which were destroyed when airport authorities condemned the property in 1997.

“The look on Lonnie’s face as he awakens on that hillside just breaks my heart,” Payne says. “So much life lived there. So much loss.”

In the opening sequence of “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America,” the camera slowly zooms in on Holley, seated at a small upright piano in the middle of a cavernous brick-walled warehouse, as he sings: “I went to sleep/I went to sleep/Anticipating on dreaming/ I fell deeper, deeper, deeper, deeper in a dream/And I dreamed/That I woke up/In a fucked-up America…”

Holley’s voice is instantly recognizable as a fully developed, idiosyncratic instrument. Using arpeggiation and glissandi, trilling, growling and whistling as melodic accompaniment, he traces out a contour that follows varying terrain: the seductive cooing of the rhythm-and-blues crooner, the soul-animating mantra of the shaman, the repetitive imploring of the preacher, the in-your-face proselytizing of the rapper. Accompanied by Nelson’s drawn-out trombone wailing, Patton’s percussive fluctuations, and Ismaily’s low amplitude didjeridoo-like effects, “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America” rolls out as a broadly ambient and powerfully undulating wave.

Yeah, humans fighting in the street / cellphone abuse / Computer misusers / Overdatafying / Ah, data feed to the cloud I woke up / Woke up / Woke up / Woke up / In a fucked-up / America.

I SAW THE LIGHT: Lonnie Holley is playing shows across the country, supporting his latest album, 'MITH.' PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Arnett.
I SAW THE LIGHT: Lonnie Holley is playing shows across the country, supporting his latest album, 'MITH.' PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Arnett.

The camera briefly cuts away to the trombonist and drummer performing in the warehouse rafters. Then the viewer sees Holley’s heavily braceleted wrists and ringed fingers lightly touching the piano keys before the scene shifts to a slowly descending, drone’s-eye-view of the artist. Stretched out prone on a weathered iron bedstead, Holley is covered in a quilt adorned with square and rectangular block patterns pieced together from 2- and 3-inch-wide red, white, and blue fabric strips. In subsequent montages, Holley is draped with a variety of artful quilts, all made by the celebrated craftswomen from Gee’s Bend, a predominantly black, rural community southwest of Selma, Alabama.

And walls, and walls / All about the walls, all about the walls / Arguing, fussing, and fighting about the walls / All the way up on Wall Street.

“I wanted the camera to be constantly moving,” says Payne, who has shot videos for Punch Brothers, Dr. Dog, and Chairlift. “Even when we did static drone shots, I used a subtle, slight zoom. I wanted everyone’s eyes to be moving toward Lonnie the entire time, creating a sense of foreboding or foreshadowing, even when he’s ‘asleep.’”

In a fucked-up America / Talking about this vote don’t count / And that vote don’t count / And the miscount of voting around the world / And all the terrorizing.

Holley’s lyrics are almost entirely improvised, inspired by the day’s activities or triggered by a conversation from a week or months ago. Arnett keeps a journal of ideas, words, phrases, and concepts that come up during the pair’s travels. He also keeps a record of particular keyboard sounds and tones favored by Holley, a self-taught musician. Arnett’s father, Bill, the prescient collector and advocate who introduced Holley’s artwork to the world in the 1980s, makes a cameo appearance in the video.
“‘I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America’ first came into being in February 2017, in Richmond, Virginia,” Arnett says. “We were chatting and someone said, ‘How are you feeling this morning?’ Lonnie replied, ‘Well, I woke up in a fucked-up America.’ Lonnie sang the first version of it that night at the Broadberry [a music venue in Richmond]. Very little of that first version is present in the version on the album, but the ideas are there.”

Musicians who have worked with Holley wonder at his ability to conjure such sublime lyrical insights in real-time. In some ways, apparently, Holley’s lack of schooling or professional training works to the music’s benefit.

“Lonnie transcends the technical aspects of music and gets to a higher, more spiritual, level almost immediately,” Nelson says. “When I let go enough to simply listen, it’s easy to follow him there.”

Cellist, composer, and founding member of the FLUX string quartet Dave Eggar has worked with everyone from Wynton Marsalis and Patti Smith to Carly Simon and DJ Spooky. Based on experience, he says playing with Holley requires “quick and varied improvisational responses, not just in a notational sense, but in a semiotic or referential sense, which places the music constantly in an expressive and philosophical space.”

Eggar calls Holley’s music “a new type of free jazz, which looks backward to the importance of the solo voice, such as one sees in the work of Ornette Coleman or the protest work of Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln,” noting that “many academically trained musicians, while versatile in their skill set, often lack the ability to address music philosophically without the intrinsic structures of Western notation.”

Whether it’s two hunks of stone in the shape of a cross or a 10-track album of melodious ruminations on a dysfunctional body politic, MITH showcases Holley’s extraordinary ability to fashion powerfully suggestive art from the world as he finds and perceives it. Born of trials, tribulations, and an indomitable spirit, it’s a process Holley finds as natural as breathing.

“Somebody recently asked me if I felt like a protest singer,” Holley says. “How can you live in America right now and not be singing out, and asking someone to pay attention?”

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