For their singular synthesis of blues, country and gospel, the Holmes Brothers are respected icons of gritty musical traditionalism, having earned a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor bestowed upon America's traditional artists.
But Sherman Holmes, the surviving member of the Virginia-based trio, says that wasn't the case early in their careers. "Back then, they would call us musical prostitutes," he says, emitting a hardy laugh. "We were guys who would play anything you'd pay 'em to play."
The gregarious 83-year-old performer was forced to go solo when the Holmes Brothers ended after guitarist/pianist brother, Wendell, and drummer Popsy Dixon both died in 2015. Now, after an absence from the scene, he's set to take the spotlight again on Wednesday, May 31 when the Sherman Holmes Project comes to, of all places, Mary Munford Elementary School.
The setting may seem a long way from the juke joints the bassist and pianist performed in when he was younger, but the concert will see the veteran bluesman accompanied by an all-star cast of regional roots music makers, including the Ingramettes, gospel singer and pianist, Cora Harvey Armstrong, multi-instrumentalist Jared Pool, and blues harmonica wunderkind, Andrew Alli. "I haven't performed with all of them as this band," Holmes says. "But I've played with them, and I know everyone there. I've got to start rehearsing today, in fact."
- Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities
Holmes reveals that he hasn't sung in a while -- after a tour of Canada last year, including the Edmonton Folk Festival, he got sick. The hiatus stalled a solo career that began with "The Richmond Sessions," recorded in 2017 at Montrose Studios. The blues/country outing was a dynamic recasting of the gritty Americana the Holmes Brothers are known for. For the album, producer Jon Lohman put together a unique backing band for Holmes that included a diverse set of players steeped in gospel (The Ingramettes), bluegrass (banjoist Sammy Shelor), funk (Devonne Harris) and blue-eyed soul (Joan Osborne). Lohman also helped to assemble the similarly unique band supporting Holmes at Munford, and is a former Virginia State Folklorist who now heads up the Center For Cultural Vibrancy, which is sponsoring the concert along with JamInc.
"It should be an intimate evening of acoustic music," Lohman says. "Similar to his appearance at the Richmond Folk Festival several years ago, or his appearance on the World Cafe radio show ... a more sit-down mellow kind of show." Some in the back-up band, such as Armstrong and the Ingramettes, will also lead songs, he says. "And, of course, there will be some Holmes Brothers."
“A gift to the world of music”
With a musical partnership spanning four decades, The Holmes Brothers traveled to 57 countries, delivering hundreds of electrifying live shows (including a gig for President Bill Clinton in the White House) and releasing a dozen albums, often collaborating with the likes of Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, Odetta and Peter Gabriel, who signed them to his Real World label. Critics were wowed. The Chicago Tribune raved that they were "a gift to the world of music."
- Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities
But before all of that, Holmes says, there were years of relative anonymity backing soul and R&B legends like Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield and John Lee Hooker -- for a time in a band called the Sevilles. "As soon as Wendell got out of high school, see, I'm four years older, we went on the road with a guy named Jimmy Jones, who had that song, 'Handy Man.' Wendell got out of school on a Wednesday and on Friday I had him on the road. We spent a couple of years with Jimmy Jones."
The former Virginia State University music student says that it wasn't hard learning all of the songs necessary to be a working musician. "I just had to listen to their records. I can do that now. I liked most of the music I heard. The only music I never warmed to was hip-hop."
Sometime in the 1970s, Wendell and Sherman hooked up with drummer and singer Popsy Dixon and performed in top 40 cover bands, but times were changing.
"When disco came along, a lot of people went out of business," he says. "They had a rule in the clubs that you had to have a live drummer but that didn't last long. So what we did was we started playing country music and working with country bands, and there weren't a lot of Black people doing that ... but we'd play anything we knew or could learn that we liked. That was the key, we had to like it."
It was an ethos that would later serve the Holmes Brothers well. As much as the trio were known for gritty takes on blues and gospel, they were also famous for taking songs from different genres and deconstructing them. Case in point: The group's indelible version of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me," a rocking rave-up transformed into a slow and soulful ballad. "We just turned it around and did it our way," he says with a shrug. "I mean, with us, it wasn't ever going to sound like Cheap Trick." Holmes pulled off a similar move on "The Richmond Sessions" when he reimagined the twangy country raveup "Little Liza Jane" as a swampy blues growler.
Today, sitting at his home in Saluda, the sandpaper-voiced performer is unsure about what he'll perform in Richmond. "Once I get four or five songs together, I'll be alright. I'll do some Holmes Brothers, some gospel, some blues." Any particular songs in mind? "You're going too far now, man," Sherman Holmes says with his trademark laugh. "I haven't picked them yet."
The Sherman Holmes Project will perform at Mary Munford Elementary on Wednesday, May 31. $20 advance. 7:30 pm. For more information, go to jaminc.org