Speaking with Sherman Holmes is like speaking to an old friend. He’s warm, he’s funny, he breaks into laughter—at both his own jokes and yours—and he's quick to invite you to be a part of his world, even if it’s just to stop by and say hello after his next appearance at the Folk Fest.
This year, he’s the first performer to be announced in the lineup on the Union Bank & Trust Virginia Folklife Stage (the rest of the line up will be released in September). While he doesn’t much mind being the first or the last, the performance itself is something he cares about very deeply. It’s the celebration of two lives lived—well, three to be exact. His brother, Wendell Holmes, and his other brother (not by blood, but by heart), Popsy Dixon, played together their whole lives before officially uniting in 1979 as a recording and performing group called the Holmes Brothers.
His laughter quiets down a little when he talks about the two men, both of whose talent he considers himself lucky to have even been near. Wendell, the guitarist, and Popsy, the drummer, both passed away in 2015. Holmes can wax nostalgic about the times they spent growing up in Saluda, Virginia, scrambling for gigs in Harlem, and then traveling the world. “The only places I can think of that I haven’t been are Mexico and Jamaica,” he says quite seriously. “Russia, Singapore, Turkey—my favorite country—and just everywhere."
But for Sherman Holmes, who cut his teeth on the clarinet and would go on to play bass and keys, it's been hard to get his bearings in a world without his brothers. They played in juke joints as children, resorting to the classical music they’d learned when they’d run out of songs to play. It was a little extra spending money and good practice for what was to come, a half-century career that only grew and grew. The Homes Brothers had their families and their roots back in Middlesex, but they spent more time on the road with each other than they did with their own wives and children. That’s just the business, he explains. You take the good with the bad.
“I used to tell my children, ‘When I go to work, everybody claps, and when I leave, everybody claps. That’s a really good job!’” he remembers. “But when my brothers died, I was at a bit of a loss. I mean, I really was bent out of shape.”
Then two events happened that started to bolster his spirits. He was partnered with fellow Middlesex County resident, Whitney Nelson, as part of the 2016 Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship program, and the energy he picked up from the talented 11-year-old gave him the jump-start he needed.
“It does feel strange to do a record without my brothers,”
At 77, energy is something to be treasured. That’s why when Virginia State Folklorist Jon Lohman suggested that he help Holmes record his very first solo album, Holmes recognized it for the opportunity it was. Something to keep him energized, creating, and moving. And most of all, as he discovered during his experience with Whitney, something to get him collaborating with other talents again.
“It does feel strange to do a record without my brothers,” admits Holmes. “I think about them every day.” But when he walked into a recording studio to lay down an impressively eclectic collection of tracks, he was faced with another surprise. The entirely new group of musicians that Lohman had put together brought the right amount of harmony Holmes looks for in all aspects of life. “Maybe because I was so much older than them that they felt like they needed to show me a lot of respect. A lot of them tell me that they feel really privileged to work with me, but I don’t know why they would feel privileged! I’m just an old man rumbling along!” Holmes laughs with characteristic humility. “But they was almost like a family. It was like we knew each other all the time.”
The new album, called The Richmond Sessions brings the listener everything from R&B to country to blues to gospel. Jon Lohman, who produced the album, sought Virginia-based guests who already admired Sherman Holmes and would mesh well with his vision. The Ingramettes’ rich 50-year tradition of gospel stands alongside Grammy-nominated Rob Ickes, IBMA Banjoist of the Year (multiple times over) Sammy Shelor, and organist Devon Harris, aka DJ Harrison, who’s spent time behind the Hammond B-3 with the likes of the Roots. Up-and-coming talent, which Holmes loves to have around him, include Jacob Eller on bass, Brandon Davis on guitar, and multi-instrumentalist Jared Pool.
“We have to keep moving on.”
The finished result is something Sherman Holmes is so proud of, but is almost reluctant to call a solo affair. That feeling when you’re able to work well with others to produce something beautiful is what he’d been so afraid of losing after his double loss two years ago. When Folklife apprentice Whitney Nelson took her turn on the stage in 2016, just after The Richmond Sessions had wrapped, and performed well under Holmes’s mentoring eye, Jon Lohman suggested that Holmes get on up and do a song himself. A piano was found, and Holmes began to play and sing “Liza Jane,” changing the name to more resemble that of a little girl he knew in the audience.
When he turned around to see the rest of the stage at last, he was surprised to see the Ingramettes and others he had recorded with and some he didn’t know at all, ready to pull together for an ad hoc performance. “It was just a wonderful experience for me. I just thank the Lord for the opportunity to learn and to have another career at this age.”
This year, Sherman Holmes is looking forward to being more prepared, but he’s still “taking it as it comes."
“We don’t know what tomorrow’s going to be. We have not a clue!” He laughs again, but there’s a note of earnestness in his voice. “We have to keep moving on."