From a farm north of Hillsborough to, in John Dee Holeman's words, "Africa, Asia, Thailand, Bangkok, Honululu, Hong Kong, China, and every which way." That's where a guitar can take you—far from home.
Born in the heart of Hillsborough in 1929, Holeman was 6 years old when his family "went to the country," moving to 100 acres of land near Hurdle Mills, out past Rougemont, growing and raising most everything they consumed: corn, wheat, hogs, cows, chicken and tobacco. Until he left home at 24, the family farm was half the center of his universe.
The other half was music. Holeman was one of nine kids, but the only one interested in music, the spark coming from an uncle and an older cousin who both played guitar. They didn't teach him, but he listened closely to them and to records—Brownie McGhee, Lightnin' Hopkins, Blind Boy Fuller. "Those old guys, you know," says Holeman of the performers he studied on LP, "low-down blues, that's what they called it."
Determined to master that low-down sound, Holeman had a guitar in hand whenever possible. He even slept with it. "I went to bed and had that guitar laying across me. I slept upstairs in a two-story house, and that thing slipped off and hit the floor," he remembers. "Scared the hell out of all of them. My mother said, 'You don't put that guitar away, I'm gonna come up there with a hammer and make splinters out of it.' She thought someone was breaking into the house."
But the guitar survived his mother's threats, and Holeman kept at it, playing by ear and feel, with no patience for sheet music. His self-schooling proved just fine, apparently. "I don't know where you got it from, but I'll tell you what: You really got it good," conceded his uncle when Holeman was in his late teens. Yeah, Holeman had it, but he was still more than 25 years away from playing his first show.
That first gig finally came in 1976. Sure, it was a delayed start, but Holeman, in his mid-40s, was a couple of decades ahead of the curve when compared to some of his blues brethren in the Delta, guys like T-Model Ford, who didn't even pick up a guitar until his late 50s. Holeman had been busy, anyway, working as a heavy machine operator, a job he held until he was forced to retire in the early '90s.
"They told me I was just too old to do it. But I still do it," he says matter-of-factly. "A couple years ago, I took one of the heavy track loaders. I tore down a two-story house in about half a day. Tore it all the way to the ground and ground it up. You can tear them down a whole lot quicker than you can build them."
That's not meant as a metaphor, but Holeman's musical career did indeed gradually build from that first outing. He played the inaugural Festival for the Eno in 1980 and hasn't missed one yet. Travels within the state eventually gave way to travels around the world. The U.S. State Department once sent him to Africa for a six-week stint as a blues ambassador. "I say that was six weeks too long," says Holeman, who appreciated the experience but couldn't abide the duration. "I've been nowhere else that I wanted to make my home. See, I was raised around here. So as soon as I get through with the show, I'm back here. Paris is a nice place, but that's not a home for me."
Home for many years has been downtown Durham, not far from the new ballpark. He still has a busy playing schedule—not just the Eno's Grove Stage comes calling—and a couple of regulars come around once in a while for a guitar lesson. He plays a little fiddle and banjo, but, he makes clear, "There's no place like home when I get that guitar."
And other folks will come by just to play alongside him, asking, "Can I sit in with you and play a different instrument? A drum or something like that?" Holeman says he tells them, "If you can keep the time and be with me, then you're welcome to."
Such willingness to collaborate characterizes Holeman's two recent recordings. Last year's John Dee Holeman & the Waifs Band sprang from a happenstance session that unfolded one afternoon at the close of a weeklong rehearsal at Music Maker Studios by young Aussie folk-rockers the Waifs.
"We just went right through it," he says. "The main thing is timing, knowing when to rise and fall and all that kind of stuff by ear." Holeman and the trio found plenty of common ground on songs like "John Henry," Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie," and "Baby, Please Don't Go," the Waifs' Vicki Thorn and Donna Simpson singing through awe, gaps of 50 years and several continents instantly closed.
Holeman's new You Got to Lose, You Can't Win All the Time comes from that same approach, just minus the impromptu factor. Drummer Zeke Hutchins, who produced the record, joins him, as well as members of Chatham County Line and Cool John Ferguson. (For more on this, see "Two records, one rhythm section.") But, really, they're just folks who asked if they could play along. According to Holeman, "We just went."
And Holeman just keeps going. He underwent emergency heart surgery over the summer, but with the resilience and determination of a 14-year-old who keeps a grip on his guitar even come bedtime, he bounced back in plenty of time to be the guest of honor at his own benefit show at Durham's Pizza Palace. A few weeks later, he was playing and singing those lean, timeless blues well past midnight at Papa Mojo's Roadhouse, backed by Mel Melton and his band.
"They didn't want me to leave," he shares, again in that just-a-matter-of-fact way.
Sorry, though: John Dee Holeman had to get home.