Deckle edge

Holmes Brothers
by Chris Flisher © 1995 /
(first published August 1995 Worcester Phoenix)

Holmes Brothers
It’s 11:00 on a Saturday morning and Wendell Holmes answers the phone with low, gravely rasp. The thick gurgle of his spoken voice matches the bluesy growl that punctuates many of the songs performed by the Holmes Brothers. It’s a distinctive voice and one that carries many of the band’s songs down a long and often lonely blues, soul, and country road. Along with brother Sherman and long-time family friend, “Popsy” Dixon, Wendell and the Holmes Brothers are surviving diamonds in a undeniably rough business. Hovering outside the mainstream, the Holmes Brothers epitomize a loosely-defined genre of music that formed the backbone of rock’n’roll.

“Roots music,” growls Wendell Holmes, “That’s what it is. It’s that earthy, rootsy sound that’s a combination of soul and blues, gospel and jazz. Some people say it’s hard to define it, until you hear it, but I say you knew it all along. It just doesn’t get played that much on the radio in this country.”

In an industry that tends to avoid it’s historical roots like dog shit on a city sidewalk, it is overwhelmingly encouraging to see the Holmes Brothers survive. Granted, their rise came at the hands of the spunky, independent Rounder label who saw no artistic option but to sign them, and no, they aren’t breaking the Top 100, yet after over 25 years together they continue to be one of the most genuine soul/blues/gospel acts on both sides of the Mississippi, but more importantly, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Still comparatively unknown in the U.S., the Holmes Brothers have a strong and loyal following in many parts of the world. With awards and accolades flowing in from the international press, it seems odd that a band representing the roots of American music would be more popular abroad.

“Seemingly,” he pauses, explaining, “All music is received better everywhere in the world, but here. It’s just our culture. We don’t do a lot of clapping and encores here and people tend to sit on their hands and just watch as opposed to participating. We’re just too green. The racial mix is so much of a melting pot that we bring all these cultures together and we just don’t give anybody anything. I think we don’t know the rules yet. We’ll get but it’s a ways off.”

As members of Peter Gabriel’s World of Music, Arts, and Dance (W.O.M.A.D.) tour, the Holmes Brothers joined musicians from around the world as representatives of American rhythm and blues. “Now in Europe and Africa and everywhere else,” offers Wendell. “They all get into this music. We did the W.O.M.A.D. thing and people all over the world loved what we did.”

Understandably. The music is gritty and bluesy like Jimmy Reed, soulful and sweet like Curtis Mayfield, and as spirited as a church choir. Rising vocals and gut-bucket leads, surging falsetto notes rub up against a fat-back bottom and combine in this music that can only be called the basics; the backbone of rock and soul. It is hard to define, yet immediate and rewarding.

Soul Street, the band’s most recent and aptly titled release illustrates their ability to effortlessly blend genres. Whether covering an aching country heartbreaker with “There Goes My Everything,” recalling Chuck Berry with a flat-out rocker on “Josephine,” or testifying their spiritual edge with “Walk In The Light,” the Holmes proudly wear their musical conviction in each format. Wendell’s gritty vocals and chunky, funky guitar blends with Popsy’s soaring falsetto leads. Beneath it all brother Sherman brings up the bottom with bass and vocals.

Paying homage to their roots, the Holmes perform a lot of covers; partly out of love for the music and partly out of deference to their past. “I love Jimmy Reed,” says Wendell, chuckling. “He wasn’t such a great guitar player, but his style was so unique and expressive it’s hard for me not to like him and his music. Nobody can do what he does. It is so simple, but man, he plays it like I like it. He’s somebody who influenced me more than anybody.”

Raised in the small, backwater town of Christchurch, Virginia, the Holmes’ were largely self-taught musicians who used piano and the church as a basis for their creative efforts. “Both Sherman and I studied piano as kids. When you use the piano, everything else falls into place,” offers Wendell, continuing, “That, and listening to great guitar players like B.B. [King] and of course, Jimmy [Reed].”

Older brother Sherman left Virginia in 1959 and headed to New York City where Wendell joined him in 1961, fresh out of high school. There the brothers regularly played behind many of the major acts that came through town. “We started playing with Jimmy Jones of “Handy Man” fame and we played as a house band for clubs on Long Island. But, we backed all the major black acts that came through. That’s where we really cut our chops.”

It wasn’t until 1989 that they cut their first record (In The Spirit) as a group and immediately captured the attention of the national and international press, receiving the French Academie du Jazz Prix Big Joe Turner Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Album of the Year. More recently, they have just completed the sound track for an upcoming movie titled “Lotto Land” in which Wendell plays a Post Office worker who plays guitar on the weekend. The score and soundtrack features all original songs by Sherman and Wendell and may well provide the necessary boost to bring the brothers to the next level.

“If I hit it big I would never stop,” reflects Wendell. “I might take a few more days off, but I don’t think I’d change. It’s just in my bones. You can’t put your fingers on it really, it’s just there. We don’t try to preach or anything like that we just do what feels good and if you feel like coming along for the ride, then that’s cool.”

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge