Lonnie Holley: A Southern Icon

After a youth full of pain, the Alabama musician and artist creates joyous works that help us understand our region.

The first time I met Lonnie Holley, he was sitting at a kitchen table, twisting wire into shapes. My friend Matt Arnett lived in an old neighborhood grocery store in Atlanta, where he staged small concerts, typically musicians who played quiet (or not-so-quiet) acoustic stuff. No more than 60 people in the audience. It was like someone playing a show in your living room: Actually, it was Matt’s living room.

Lonnie was at almost every show I saw at the old grocery, sitting quietly in the back of the room, his hands always in motion. I didn’t know it at the time, but the tiny sculptures he made were part of a far bigger art career — and part of a far bigger story about a very special Southern life. Lonnie was born in Birmingham, Alabama, smack dab in the middle of the 20th century, when the bastard Jim Crow ruled everything and everybody in our region. As you’ll read in Rob Rushin-Knopf’s marvellous story today, Lonnie’s youth was truly hellish. And if you want to hear the whole story, you should absolutely listen to a podcast called “Unreformed: The Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children.”

Lonnie Holley had gifts — a brilliant imagination and a steel-trap mind he used to create great works of art and improvisational music that have by now caught the attention of the entire world. If you’re not aware of Lonnie’s life and work, today is the day to get started. He is a seminal figure in anyone’s understanding of the South.

Speaking of this benighted region we love, you should also let the gifted writer Rachel Louise Martin into your life this week. We Southerners are ridiculously obsessed with the idea of home — whether we’re talking about the places where we literally grew up or the homes we make for ourselves as we travel through life. Rachel’s essay for us this week recounts the day she revisited her Tennessee homeplace and discovered the difference between who she used to be and who she is now.

And we round out the week with an exceptional poem from North Carolinian Hugh Findlay about a Saturday night in Durham as Frank O’Hara, a 20th century New York School poet, might have experienced it.

Keep coming back to Salvation South, and listen to my weekly Friday commentaries on Georgia Public Broadcasting, or subscribe to them via your favorite podcast app, whether it's Apple Podcasts, NPR One, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

Author Profile

Chuck Reece is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Salvation South, the weekly web magazine you're reading right now. He was the founding editor of The Bitter Southerner. He grew up in the north Georgia mountains in a little town called Ellijay.

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