On Broad Street Café's stage Saturday night, Peter Holsapple and Peter Lang could not have been more different.
Holsapple—the songwriter, current dB, former R.E.M. collaborator and Hootie & the Blowfish sideman—stood at center stage with his acoustic guitar, brusque and confident, saying things like, "Some of you know who I am. For some of you, I am a complete stranger. We'll see if we can change that." An hour later, Lang—a Minneapolis-bred musician who, with John Fahey, lead the American Primitivism folk movement through the '70s—sat in a chair several feet from the crowd, tucked far away to stage left. On his 60th birthday, he apologized for talking too much and for being addled by the audience singing "Happy Birthday," which surprised him as he took the stage.
Early the next afternoon, Holsapple and Lang gathered around a Broad Street table to talk careers for an hour. Their views are striking and similar. We pick up where Lang introduces Holsapple to Testament, his second album since taking a two-decade break from music.
PETER LANG: This is Testament. I didn't write a single thing on here. This is sort of the cover. At the top, you'll see Mississippi John Hurt. To the left is Leadbelly.
PETER HOLSAPPLE: Is that Blind Blake in the middle?
LANG: That's Blind Blake in the middle, yeah, and Charlie Patton at the bottom. On the right that's Jimmie Rodgers. But that's probably going to end up as either Dave "Snaker" Ray...
HOLSAPPLE: I would hope so.
LANG: I thought about it, and if it hadn't been for David, I wouldn't be here.
HOLSAPPLE: My late brother turned me on to the Koerner, Ray & Glover records when I was about 10 years old, and that's where I learned blues from, listening to stuff like "Fine Soft Land."
LANG: On New Year's Eve, I went over to visit his widow and buy his 12-string guitar. It was in the Minnesota History Museum, and it had been there for seven years. It was on a semi-permanent exhibit. It came out. I was doing a benefit: Do you know who Bruce Phillips is? Utah Phillips?
HOLSAPPLE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
LANG: Bruce's pacemaker went out, and he's real sick. They had a benefit for him, probably a lot of them around the country, and I was one of the people in the benefit. Dave's wife came. When Dave died, she had a giant garage sale of all these instruments. I bid on a lot of stuff, but they were all snagged up by collectors. This guitar, I think it's called a Holzapfel—similar to your name—but they were made in Baltimore from like 1880 through 1960, and it's a Leadbelly-style guitar.
HOLSAPPLE: The forgotten luthier side of the Holsapple family. [Laughs.]
LANG: Well, I was wondering, you know?
HOLSAPPLE: Nah, it's weird, except for my late brother and me, they couldn't carry a tune in a wet paper bag with a knife in it.
LANG: Anyway, this is like circa 1960, the guitar, and it's the one he did all his recordings with. She asked me—this is not a good time for me because I can't tour much because my wife just had a stroke so I'm kind of stuck to the Twin City's area—but I thought, "If it wasn't for Dave.... How can I pass this up?" Well, it's in pretty rough shape, so I went and called her up and said, "OK, what do you want for it?" Dave had it insured for $1,500. I said, "Sold." That's still a lot of money, but when I opened it, it was like a shrine. I was friends with Dave, but I've got to tell you that when I opened it, I almost got teary-eyed. She said, "Peter, I know I could put this up on eBay and get a lot more money for this, but I don't want this sitting in somebody's collector closet. I want it to go to somebody who loved Dave and plays his music." I said, "MJ, I guarantee you this guitar will not be in a closet. It will be loved, and I will play his music." I'm sorry, I went way off topic.
HOLSAPPLE: No, that's an inspiration for you. We lost, last year, this wonderful guy that inspired me when I was a kid in Winston-Salem, Sam Moss. Took his own life last May, and he was like the Mike Bloomfield of Winston-Salem. He had the horn bands and his own Electric Flag band. He was the big fish in the small pond. He didn't tour out. He didn't play nationally, but he could have. He started a guitar store and had that for 10 years in downtown Winston-Salem, and that was a salon for visiting musicians. I took a picture of him out this year on my laminate, and I just stuck it up beside my keyboard. I tour with a group called Hootie & the Blowfish.
LANG: Oh yeah?
HOLSAPPLE: I'm the keyboard player for those guys. I took this picture of Sam with this gold top out in front of the coliseum in Winston-Salem, and I was like, "You know, I get to do this. I get to be a musician. I'm 52 years old, and I've gotten to do this since I was 8 years old. This is just the best thing in the world." I look at my father and wonder if he loved his job as a trust officer in Wachovia. Maybe? He obviously didn't like being a lawyer, but I get to say I dug my job. I got to do good things with it, and I got to inspire people, too. When the dB's, my band from the '80s, gets back together and plays in New York, half of the audience are gray beards like you and me and the other half are 25. They weren't old enough to see over the record counter when the records came out. But they're digging it.
LANG: I feel the same way. My father died of cancer, but before he knew he had it, we were talking, and he was getting ready to go to Florida. I made some comment, and he said he wasn't feeling well. I told him to quit his whining, and that he was too mean to die, that he was going to live forever. He said, "You know what? Life ain't that great. I wouldn't mind going tomorrow." I thought to myself, "How sad." He was an insurance salesman in Minneapolis and did not have a particularly good life. But I got yanked out of school by John Fahey, and the first 10 years were like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. It was great fun and a lot of heartache. But I got to live a dream. I knew at age 4 I wanted to be Gene Autry. I wanted to play guitar and sing. I feel blessed to have known so young that I wanted to play music. Even when I was playing trumpet in fourth grade because my parents wouldn't buy me a stringed instrument, I knew I wanted to play music. Finally, my father just went, "Look, any instrument you want that's not loud like this, you can have it." I said, "Anything?" He said, "Yeah." I said I wanted a guitar. He said "OK," and that ruined my life.
HOLSAPPLE: [Laughs.] That would have been about the time my mother asked me if I knew how to play "Far, Far Away."