COVER STORY | Lonnie Holley: A Cruel Childhood, An Artful Life

Renowned painter draws from a deep well of trauma and observation in his music

Music Features Lonnie Holley
COVER STORY | Lonnie Holley: A Cruel Childhood, An Artful Life

When Lonnie Holley plays the London Royal Academy next Friday, he won’t be singing the songs from his brand new album Oh Me Oh My. That material, recorded with the likes of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Sharon Van Etten and Moor Mother, is now in the past.

Holley is always moving forward, creating an archive of art and music he hopes will last millennia. Every performance is an opportunity for something new to spring from his deep “ocean of thought,” a reservoir of ideas that grows with every walk in the woods, every good or bad experience, and every object he sees in a way others might miss.

On the morning I visit his temporary studio in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, right next to the Lindbergh MARTA station, he sits at his work table, sweatshirt and pants covered in paint, fingers and wrists covered in jewelry. He’s already created several fascinating images on his phone and is working on a painting using spray cans and a plastic cut-out. One of the digital images is a swirling college of yellow and white patterns. He tips a plastic paint can until l can see the yellow paint inside and the origin of the image becomes crystal clear. One of his greatest gifts is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Now 73, Holley has, in the last decade, found a second career in music alongside his prolific output of visual art that includes pieces shown or permanently installed in the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, the American Folk Art Museum and the White House. Like his sculptures and paintings, his music is hard to categorize. It began with homemade cassette recordings in the ’90s, with Holley playing his Casio synth and singing the day’s events, or his reaction to news stories, like an audio diary.

He’d share them Matt Arnett, the son of art historian and collector William Arnett, who was an ardent champion of Holley’s work. “He would sit down at his keyboard, and he would program some like polka beats or some just different, weird things,” says the younger Arnett, now Holley’s manager, when he arrives at the studio in the afternoon. “And he would hit the beat maker, and it would make a beat, and he would just start playing and singing. And sometimes, 45 minutes later the tape would flip, and it would just be these 90-minute songs, and he would be singing the whole time.”

Just as he never had any formal art training, he never had any music training. “I probably had been singing—moaning and groaning and singing [all my life]—but I never had the opportunity to go to any studio,” he says. “I really didn’t know how to get into that or couldn’t afford it.”

He’s been absorbing music since he was a kid—quite literally from the age of four when he lived in a whiskey house in Birmingham, Alabama, and slept next to a Rock-Ola jukebox that spun old blues 45s. It wasn’t a happy upbringing, and that “ocean of thought” is also full of more trauma than any child should bear.

“Without my art, I don’t think I’d be alive because of everything that I have experienced,” Holley tells me, and as he recounts those experiences, he often has to collect himself. He’s been visiting the past often lately—on his new album, in a new podcast called Unreformed: the Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, where he spent three years, and in interviews like mine.

“It’s hurtful because going back is almost like putting the hunk of beef or hunk of pork or whatever you’re going to make your sausage out of and regrinding it and regrinding it,” he says. “But it’s alright in a sense because I know now, since I met William Arnett, that my life is what makes my art what it is, in the powerful manner that it is.”

The child living in the whiskey house was known as Tonky McElroy. He’d been handed off to a burlesque dancer at 18 months old, when his mother had trouble feeding him. He was the seventh child of Dorothy Mae Holley, who would give birth to 20 more, and his time with the dancer, whose name was lost to history, would be short. For three years, they traveled all over the state until one night, she left the Alabama State Fairgrounds with him for the juke joint next door. When the wife of the bar’s proprietor, Mrs. McElroy, saw the sickly looking child, she insisted on taking him in. Swapped him for a bottle of whiskey, the story goes.

But the whiskey house wasn’t a safe place for a child. “Mrs. McElroy saw that I was malnourished and fixed me a plate of food,” Holley says. “And there was a man there, and he was probably around the house all the time. But he was drunk, and he saw me with this big plate of food, and he was grabbing at my food. And I grabbed my food and scooted back up underneath the couch. And he got mad because he couldn’t grab me. And he got the hot poker out of the stove. In Birmingham they used a lot of coke to make the fire intensely hot. He grabbed that hot poker and was mad at me and was juking at me because I had bit his arm to protect my plate. And he poked a hole.” He pulls my hand to his forehead. “You feel that? He put a hole in my head with the poker iron, and it went in my head, deep. They had to take me out on a stretcher with a poker iron sticking out of my head. That was the first thing that had happened to me, the first cruel thing—I carry this spot, and sometimes I wish I didn’t. But sometimes it also keeps me grounded.”

The cruelty continued. Mrs. McElroy was kind, but she died when Holley was seven. The child, alone, didn’t know what to do. When her husband came home, he blamed Holley for her death. He grabbed a piece of firewood and hit him in the head, beating him nearly unconscious. When Holley loaded up his wagon and ran away, he was hit by a car. “I got dragged up underneath the car for two and a half blocks,” he says. “My whole body was tore up. I was considered braindead because my head was just bumping against the concrete.”

He was in a coma for three months and when he recovered, it was back to the man he was trying to escape, who he believed would have killed him that day. He would find solace in watching every movie at the drive-in just across the ditch behind his house. Or in watching the people who would come visit the whiskey house after a night at the fairgrounds. “I learned a lot about people, not so much in the habit of becoming an alcoholic, but just using alcohol to relieve tension, stress, frustration or get into a smooth groove,” he says. “Dancing, music—all of those things relieved us from our daily stress and tension. Whatever kind of music, it goes into our brain and relieves our daily thoughts. I call that thought-smithing.”

Mr. McElroy continued his abuse, and Holley found peace in the outdoors—in the smallest bits of nature, like the animals crawling around the roots of the drain pipe that led from his yard right into the fairgrounds. One night, at age 11, he was arrested for breaking curfew. Some of the other boys locked up that night decided to break out of the jail, and Holley was swept up in the misadventure that ended with a crashed car. He was taken immediately to Mt. Meigs.

The Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children was more prison than a place where a kid might learn. Its horrific abuses were recently chronicled by the eight-part Unreformed podcast, which tells the stories of Holley and other survivors, one of whom calls it simply “a slave camp.” Host Josie Duffy Rice also talks to Civil Rights historians and the whistleblower responsible for bringing a federal lawsuit about the school against the state of Alabama.

Holley recounts his own experience in the song “Mt. Miegs” from the new album: “They let me go from Mt. Miegs Alabama in 1964 / but with some cuts and bruises that I would never forget / Alabama Industrial School, the hardship that children was going through / Children after children after children / picking cotton, hoisting those bales, bending our backs … singing the song, ‘Long time coming and it won’t be long, you’re going to see ol’ Sally with the Red Dress on.’”

Other kids at Mt. Meigs would receive care packages from family with things like socks and underwear and cookies. But Holley, still going by Tonky McElroy, had no family. He’d been searching for the mother he’d lost ever since Mrs. McElroy died, but he didn’t know exactly where she lived. And after the hard labor and the beatings he experienced at Mt. Meigs, he decided to run away. Tired and hungry, he looked through the window of a tractor business and saw a can of sardines and some crackers on top of a refrigerator. He busted a window with his elbow to get in and fell asleep after eating.

“Next thing I know,” Holley recalls, “this white man grabbed me by my collar and said, ‘God damn it, what you doing here?’ and took his fist and knocked me out. Not knowing that I was the same little boy that had three years ago had this real serious car accident. Not knowing three years before that I had the poker iron jabbed way back in my brain.”

When he was taken back to Mt. Meigs, the superintendent ordered him beaten so badly his thighs split open. “150 licks Mr. Holloway told them to hit me,” he says, his anger rising. “That was for running away. He didn’t say why he was adding up to 150. He didn’t say 50 licks were for breaking into the tractor place because he had to pay for it. And what did he pay for it with, half a hog? Or half a cow? My thing is, I want to know what did you pay to get me that many licks because the record ain’t clear. If you told that man, ‘I’ll give you half a hog if you keep this to yourself’ or ‘I’ll give you half a cow,’ I want to know. I want to know that before my death.”

Holley was finally reunited with his family at age 14. He was broken and wild, and after six months in Birmingham, they sent him to live with his older brother in Florida. “It was hard for me to even deal with any human,” he says. “I didn’t want to associate with anybody. Sonny could control me.”

But the women who came into his life—his mother, his grandmother and aunts—saw something in this child who’d survived years of torment. “All these women would congregate and say that child is too damn smart to lose,” he says. “Now I know I got to be too damned smart to lose myself. And I got to be too damned smart to let others that are smarter than me lose themselves. That’s the main thing about my music.”

But before music came art. When he was in his late 20s, his sister’s house caught fire, killing two of her children. Holley found sandstones and carved them into tombstones that went inside their coffins. He kept making the carvings, some to commemorate dead family members, and eventually got the nerve to drive his car, full of 100 different pieces, into town.

“I knocked on the back door of the Birmingham Museum of Art,” he recalls. “And I said I wanted to show them some of the work I had been doing, because I didn’t know the term, ‘art.’ And the director, Richard Murray, came to the door and looked in the car and saw what I had been doing, and he said, ‘You did all of this?’”

Lonnie Holley had become Tonky McElroy before reclaiming his name, and now he had a new one, “the Sand Man.” Holley’s art career has since taken him all over the world. But his music career wouldn’t really get off the ground for several more decades. In 2006, those tapes that he shared with Matt Arnett eventually led to his first time in a studio, at least a makeshift one set up in a church for the women of Gee’s Bend, Ala., best known for their beautiful quilts, to sing their gospel songs.

Holley had taken to traveling on the bus with the women from Gee’s Bend as they opened art exhibitions all around the country. And there was always singing on those buses. “His main purpose for going was just that he loved the women,” Arnett says. “He was raised by a woman who made quilts. The fact that these women were getting their flowers, he wanted to be there, and we always needed help. When you have 30 people who are 70, 80 years old, you always need help. And Lonnie was like, ‘I’ll go.’ So there’s Lonnie carrying bags for women to their hotel rooms. And on the buses it was like a gospel concert, and of course, they would want Lonnie to preach.”

Often, when they arrived in cities like Houston or Boston or New York, the museum curator would ask the women to sing. And they, in turn, would ask Holley to join them. So when Arnett set up a studio for the women for a week, he asked Holley if he wanted to record some music himself. Looking back, Arnett kicks himself for waiting so long. “It’s ironic now in hindsight that I was working with my father who believed in every cell of his body that the art that Lonnie and Thornton Dial and Joe Mentor made—and dozens and dozens of other artists—that the art they made was equal to the art made anywhere in the world and deserved to be in museums and where the greatest art in the world belonged. And he fought for that, and I was right there trying to help him and support artists in doing all that. And yet, at the same time, there was this incredible music just right there, and I’m the only person in the world really with continuous access to it, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Didn’t know what it was, didn’t know what to call it, didn’t know the language.”

Holley’s ambitions for those first recordings produced a few false starts—trying to capture the perfect sound of water dripping or getting the Gee’s Bend women to improvise on top of his unstructured sounds. But when he just sat down with some sounds he made on a Korg, picked up his own Casio keyboard and started singing, the magic happened. The song was “Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants,” which would later appear on his 2013 album Keeping a Record of It.

“Hearing that first recording of myself in more like a professional recording level,” Holley says, “I think a lot of us can be shower or bathroom singers—but when it comes down to hearing yourself when it’s been worked down to a point to being audience-worthy, for me, it just changed my life.”

The sound bed is an otherworldly tinkling of keys with Holley singing in his unique melodic warble, “A woman once asked me / Why do I sing for a queen? / I said all the queen has done / All of her hard labor / I said I wasn’t there for her inauguration / I wasn’t there for her celebration / But I’m around when her birthday comes.” Holley had spent his life listening to music—to Fats Domino on the old Rock-ola, to all the music piped into the big screen at the drive-in and the concerts at the fairgrounds, to Lawrence Welk and Hee-Haw on the television, the labor songs at Mt. Meigs to keep the children in lockstep while they worked, to the gospel music of his grandmother once he left and to Sam Cooke and the other artists played by “Tall Paul” Dudley White on WJLD. Holley sounded like none of that—or maybe all of that. The ocean of thought has to be full of ideas to create something new. But still, Holley and Arnett didn’t really know what to do with them.

“We recorded three songs,” Arnett recalls. “We were there for a week, but it was mostly the gospel songs. And they sat for four or five years. I mean I had them on a drive, but—I mean nowadays Billie Eilish can just put it on Bandcamp, and you put it out there and somebody somewhere will be like, ‘That was amazing,’ but there wasn’t really that structure. And so they just kind of sat there. We didn’t forget about it, but nothing really happened.”

But in 2009, Arnett had moved into an old corner store, and had just hosted the first house show with cellist Ben Sollee in what would become Grocery on Home, a hub of the Atlanta folk scene. The next weekend he invited Holley to come play, but Holley didn’t even have a keyboard anymore. His old Casio had broken and he hadn’t got a new one. Arnett found a keyboard and Holley played his first live concert.

“I think there were about 14 people there. It was pretty amazing,” Arnett says. “And then we started going in the studio and recording and here we are.”

Holley began playing more solo shows, always improvising his music and lyrics and collaborating with other musicians who could follow along. “When I get with the other artists and we soundcheck,” he says, “I hear what their sound is going to sound like, and I’m ready to go. I can mix it, I can blend it, I can do with people or without people. And mostly I like to go with people because I can go with the density of my thought.”

Lonnie released a trio of albums in 2012 and 2013, before returning with MITH, one of Paste’s Best Albums of 2018. During the pandemic he released a collaboration with Matthew E. White, Broken Mirror: A Self Reflection. And now he has an album full of collaborations produced by Jackknife Lee, who’s worked with U2, R.E.M. and Taylor Swift.

“When we met Jackknife,” says Arnett, “and Lonnie would talk about his ideas and what the core of the song was about, what it should sound like, Jackknife would create a sound to float the ideas that Lonnie had and like distill the idea down into something that could be appreciated. Lonnie loved it. It was a different way of making music, but not one that was foreign to Lonnie.”

“I try not to cloud my mind with trying to remember everybody who played with me because that’s more of a burden of thought because I’ve got so much up here,“ Holley adds. “But again I’m so thankful to each and every person that I have collaborated with because they brought a Quincy Jones effect to the music. ‘We Are the World’ where all the old musicians came together to sing about this planet that we’re on and if you look at me, that’s what that Jones part of me is doing.”

So now we have poet/activist Moor Mother adding her own lyrical flavor to Lonnie Holley declaring, “I Am A Part Of The Wonder” and “Earth Will Be There.” We have Michael Stipe lending his lovely baritone to the title track, singing “Oh Me, Oh My,” before Holley contrasts it with his higher timbre and his occasional growl, like when he sings, “I thought about how grandmama used to be down on her knees / Grandmama used to not able to get up off her knees / after giving birth to / baby after baby after baby after baby.” Justin Vernon, Sharon Van Etten, Rokia Koné and Jeff Parker all lend their talents to songs that both dig deep into Holley’s past and proclaim messages of peace and kindness and thankfulness. “Kindness Will Follow Your Tears” is one of the titles, and it’s one of the many mantras Holley has chosen to live by.

But there are no vocal collaborators on “Mount Meigs.” It’s his voice alone over the cacophony as the memories become more horrific. These are the most painful recollections of “girls and boys crying, ‘I wanna go home’ / Old man get up and say you had a good home but you wouldn’t stay there / You had a good home but you wouldn’t stay there’ / We was trying to understand the meaning of ‘wouldn’t stay there’ / I was only trying to run away to find my mother / I needed my mother, I needed the hugs, I just needed her / I need to know who my grandpappy was / I needed to know who my own mama was … They beat the curiosity out of me / They beat it out of me, they pushed it, they knocked, it that banged it, slammed it, damned it, damned the curiosity.”

Those three years of abuse and neglect—and all the abuse and neglect that preceded them—will always be with Holley. And they will always fuel his art and music, but with a purpose, challenging the viewer or the listener to think about the distant future and how we’re living. To think about our connection with nature, and what we’re doing to it. About kindness and turning away from foolishness.

“It’s almost like you go into this world, and you bring in all these possibilities,” he says, “and you’re doing all these different types of pieces of art, you’re working with all this material, you’re moving from one plane of thought to another, you’re moving through the ages. I was born in 1950, my birthday just passed, but think of me being born in 1950 and the hardship that I must have beared from then until now. Not only do I see my life as a privilege, but I see all that I’ve learned as a gift, to us, the humanities. Not just for now. When I spoke with Bill Arnett, I said, ‘Let’s see if we can get this work to an education value for 50,000 years.’ Preservation, preserving. I’m just like grandma or grandpa putting preserves in the jar. Every time I sing, I’m putting preserves in the jar.”

So it’s important for him to document all his shows, to record himself singing or fill his phone with images he creates. To release documents of his creations that he can put more effort into his music and walk out of the studio with Oh Me Oh My—then to reach for the next thing, to tap into that ocean of thought that is always getting refilled.

“Those songs are done,” he says of his latest album and every concert he gives. “Everywhere I go, those songs are done. Once I get those songs out of me, it’s almost like me stepping on a piece of history. The history itself captivates my brain, it makes me interested in it. I look upon it, I study it, I hear it. … So that’s the making of my music. It’s not so much a gift for me, it’s for humanity, it’s for the people. And it’s always time to move on to the next thing.”

Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief. You can find him on Twitter @joshjackson and taking photos in nature @BirdsAtl.

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