None But the Righteous
Meet the Singularly Unique Gospeldelic Doo-Wop Funk of the Holmes Brothers
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One of the highlights of the Holmes Brothers' terrific new album, Simple Truths (Alligator), is the trio's version of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." The old Hank Williams song opens with a slow-moving, distorted guitar lick, played by Wendell Holmes with all the bluesy ache of romantic abandonment. Supported by his older brother Sherman's bass and Popsy Dixon's drums, Wendell builds the song to its anguished refrain, and the three men give the hillbilly classic the throaty harmonies of a black Baptist church in the South. It's as if Otis Redding had joined the Isley Brothers at the Grand Ole Opry.
Nor is this the only transformation of a country song on the album. Willie Nelson's "Opportunity to Cry" is done as a slow piano blues. Emmylou Harris and Don Williams' "If I Needed You" becomes a slow, processional hymn, complete with pump organ and piano. Jim Reeves' "He'll Have to Go" becomes a sweet, seductive soul song, and Gillian Welch's "Everything Is Free" becomes a high-tenor R&B ballad.
"When I was a kid in Virginia," Wendell recalls, "I'd be listening to Jimmy Reed on a little, 1,000-watt black station and along would come the signal from a 10,000-watt white [station], and, bam, I'm listening to Hank Williams. And it wasn't all that different.
"Country music and the blues are connected--they don't butter up the story but talk about life as it really is. The blues come from simple people who have suffered, and so does country music. Race may have kept them apart, but they have a common denominator--the South. Country, blues, gospel, bluegrass, folk, it's all American roots music, and that's what we play. It's not choreographed. What you see is what you get."
As Wendell explains this, he leans forward on the black leather couch in his Baltimore County home. It's just one of a long row of identical brick bungalows with tidy, snow-blanketed yards near the former Golden Ring Mall in Rosedale. There's nothing on the home's exterior or first floor to indicate that here lives a musician who has recorded with Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison, and the Jungle Brothers. It's not until you clamber down the narrow stairs to the basement that you find the row of seven guitars and a piano near the gas-fed fireplace.
Wendell, sporting a trim, salt-and-pepper beard and rectangular glasses, is polishing off a pizza. Sitting next to him on the couch is Popsy Dixon, taller and thinner with a gray goatee and heavy-lidded eyes. Wendell, 60, moved to Baltimore in 1991 when his wife Barbara, who worked for Bethlehem Steel, was transferred from New York. Wendell's reports of low rents and laid-back living convinced Dixon, 61, to move to Northeast Baltimore, near Frankfort and Sinclair, in 2002. The last holdout is Sherman, who still lives in New York, where the trio lived and worked from the early '60s through the early '90s.
"The rents in New York were getting ridiculous for a little cubicle," Dixon complains. "Wendell said, 'There's a place down here with more space and lower rent.' Once I moved down here, it took me awhile to get used to less hustle and bustle. I was used to people hollering at each other all night long."
"I like Baltimore," Wendell insists. "It's country but it's not too country. It's a lot like Tidewater, Virginia, where I grew up. The cooking around here is Southern, and so are the people. I find a special honesty about Southern people--whether they're black or white, at least you know where you stand. In the North, people are more likely to say one thing and mean another. I can't say we're involved in the local music scene here because we're on the road so much, but I do like being close to I-95. We're only three hours from New York, where Sherman is, and only three hours from Christchurch, our hometown."
It makes sense that Wendell and Dixon would end up halfway between New York and Christchurch, Va., because those two towns represent the twin influences that make the trio's music so distinctive. Wendell and Sherman grew up on a 130-acre farm in Christchurch. After working long hours in the corn and wheat fields, the two brothers would head for their cousin Herman Wakes' juke joint. There the youngsters often played into the wee hours of Sunday morning and then got up a few hours later to sing in the Calvary Baptist Church.
"We used to rock 'em on Saturday and save 'em on Sunday," Wendell chortles. "Some church people think we should shy away from the blues, and some barroom people think we should shy away from gospel. But I have to have both sides, because my life is both sides. That's why it's always been hard to pigeonhole the Holmes Brothers. Whatever you can do through music to make people feel better about themselves is a good thing."
Sherman was the first to head north, arriving in New York in 1959. Wendell, four years younger, followed two years later. They were the bassist and guitarist for the Sevilles, the house band at a Long Island bar called Gibson's. On Thursdays, the off night for Harlem's Apollo Theatre, many of the Apollo stars would come out to Gibson's, and the Sevilles wound up backing everyone from Curtis Mayfield and John Lee Hooker to the Flamingos and Little Anthony. Sherman and Wendell impressed everyone with their chops and Southern feel and soon became two of the most called-upon backing musicians in New York.
"In 1967 I was playing with Tommy Knight and the Mighty Knights at the Office Lounge in the Bronx," Wendell remembers. "We were looking for a drummer and someone said, 'You see that guy over there? That guy can play some drums. And you know what else? He can sing.' I'd never heard of a drummer who could sing, but we brought the guy up, and when he sang 'Let It Be Me,' it was all over. I've been playing with Popsy ever since."
"We all got along from day one," Dixon maintains. "Even when we cuss each other out, a moment later everything is cool. Part of the secret is we never share rooms--we just share the music."
The Sevilles and the Mighty Knights both started out as instrumental combos in the vein of Booker T. and the MGs or the Meters, but it soon became obvious that Wendell, Sherman, and Dixon were good singers individually and great singers collectively.
"All three of us were musicians first and singers later," Wendell admits. "But you rarely hear the blues sung in harmony, so when we started doing that, it gave us a hook. People would say, 'There's the Holmes Brothers--they do harmony blues.' And there's definitely something about families singing together--whether it's the Carter Family, the Jackson 5, or the Five Stairsteps. Part of it is the genes, but a lot of it is that history of growing up singing together."
Wendell, Sherman, and Dixon first performed as the Holmes Brothers in 1979, and their Sunday night jam sessions at Dan Lynch's in the East Village became ground zero for the New York blues scene. But it would be another 11 years before their first album, In the Spirit, appeared on Rounder Records. The 20 years of dues paying, though, were evident in the relaxed, veteran confidence on the tracks, and the trio was an immediate hit with critics and with audiences at showcase clubs and festivals.
After that first one, the albums started coming regularly: 1991's Where It's At added steel guitarist Gib Wharton, who toured as the unofficial fourth member through 1995. 1992's all-gospel Jubilation made the Holmes Brothers the first American act to record for Peter Gabriel's Real World label. 1993's Soul Street focused on early R&B, while 1996's Lotto Land was the soundtrack album for a movie that co-starred Wendell. 1997's Promised Land featured songs by Tom Waits and Paul McCartney, and 2001's Speaking in Tongues was produced by the band's old friend Joan Osborne.
"Joan came into Dan Lynch's one day back in the '80s," Dixon remembers. "She heard us play and said, 'Hmmm, maybe I'll sing too.'"
"She's from Kentucky, and we're from Virginia, so it was easy to become friends," Wendell adds. "I'm so proud of Joanie, because she's matured so much as a singer since we met. She's constantly working to develop. And she surprised me as a producer--she knew all about engineering and really pushed us to improve."
The new album, Simple Truths, was produced by Craig Street, who oversaw a similar blend of country and blues on recent albums by Cassandra Wilson and Norah Jones. It was Street who suggested that Dixon sing Bob Marley's "Concrete Jungle" as a country blues. It was Street who encouraged Wendell to add the garage-rock guitar to "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." It was Street who insisted that the arrangements be left half-finished with the rough edges showing.
"On the new album," Wendell points out, "you'll notice that a lot of songs don't have an ending. They just stop. At first it bothered me, because most of our records have been arranged--some even have horn sections. So when I first heard the roughs, I was not pleased at all. But when I heard the final mix, I was overjoyed, because I saw what he was up to. He was showing the world the real-deal Holmes Brothers. A lot of people ask me if this album was done live. I take that as a compliment."
The Holmes Brothers play Annapolis' Rams Head Tavern Feb. 27. For more information, call (410) 268-4545 or visit www.ramsheadtavern.com.