Apprenticeship Spotlight: Sherman Holmes and Whitney Nelson

By Jon Lohman, Virginia State Folklorist

Singer Whitney Nelson is apprenticing under Sherman Holmes of the Holmes Brothers to learn more about blues and gospel singing. Photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

One of my fondest memories of the 2014 Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase was the sight of members of participating master artists the Holmes Brothers sitting in the audience, eyes glued to the stage, thoroughly enjoying the other musical performances throughout the afternoon. Musicians of one genre are not always so open and appreciative of musical styles so different from their own, but the blues and gospel legends from Christchurch, Virginia, clearly took great delight in everything from mountain bluegrass and old time to Russian balalaika orchestral music and Sephardic Jewish ballads. The Holmes Brothers’ enthusiastic and generous response to their fellow master artists also served to drive home the humanity and down-hominess of a group that has achieved global stardom, having shared the stage with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Van Morrison, and who would soon after this event receive the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor the United States bestows on traditional artists.

As we prepare for our 2016 Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase, it is heartbreaking and frankly surreal to think that two members of this much beloved trio are no longer with us. Popsy Dixon, longtime drummer and remarkable falsetto singer for the Holmes Brothers, died of cancer in January of 2015, and was followed months later by band mate Wendell Holmes, who succumbed to multiple health problems.

Wendell Holmes and Popsy Dixon at the 2014 Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase. Photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program.
Wendell Holmes and Popsy Dixon at the 2014 Showcase.
Wendell Holmes at the 2013 Richmond Folk Festival. Photo by Peter Hedlund/Virginia Folklife Program
Wendell Holmes at the 2013 Richmond Folk Festival.
Popsy Dixon, left, of the Holmes Brothers dances with the Family of Praise Gospel Choir, featuring master artist Cheryl Maroney. Photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program.
Popsy Dixon, left, with Cheryl Maroney Beaver in 2014.
Popsy Dixon (photo by Peter Hedlund)
Popsy Dixon at 2013 Richmond Folk Festival.

The deaths of Popsy and Wendell ended an amazing run for a group with humble beginnings on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, who performed a joyous and moving blend of blues, gospel, soul, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and country for more than fifty years. Sherman and Wendell Holmes were raised by schoolteacher parents who fostered the boys’ early interest in music by playing recordings of traditional Baptist hymns, anthems, and spirituals, as well as blues music by Jimmy Reed, Junior Parker, and B. B. King. Sherman studied composition and music theory at Virginia State University before heading to New York City, where Wendell joined him. In 1979, the duo formed the Holmes Brothers band with Sherman on bass, Wendell on guitar, and Popsy Dixon on drums. With their soulful singing, uplifting harmonies, and unsurpassed musicianship, the Holmes Brothers blended Saturday night roadhouse rock with the gospel fervor and harmonies of a Sunday morning church service. During their remarkable career, the band has played and recorded with the brightest stars of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll scene.

Just being around young people, seeing their enthusiasm and energy, it just makes you feel better. – Sherman Holmes

Yet despite their worldwide acclaim and busy touring schedule, the Holmes Brothers remained dedicated to their roots in Christchurch, and to taking time to help foster the talents of younger generations. Wendell, residing in Baltimore, apprenticed the talented young guitarist Brooks Long through the Maryland Traditions Apprenticeship Program, and Sherman and the group entered our program to apprentice then eleven-year-old vocalist and Middlesex County resident Whitney Nelson.

Throughout the devastating losses of the past year, Sherman remained dedicated to his apprenticeship of Whitney, and has in fact credited the apprenticeship with helping him to make it through. “I tell you man, I don’t know what I would have done without this young lady around,” Sherman told me on a recent visit to his home in Christchurch. “Just being around young people, seeing their enthusiasm and energy, it just makes you feel better.”

Sherman Holmes and Whitney Nelson, at Sherman’s home, February 2016. Photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program.
Sherman Holmes and Whitney Nelson, at Sherman’s home, February 2016. Photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program.

Watching Sherman and Whitney practicing together, it’s easy to see the joy Sherman takes in Whitney’s progress. “I’ll tell you what,” Sherman told us, “this young girl can sing. If she keeps at it, there’s no telling what she can do.” Sherman takes special pleasure in seeing a young person from his own hometown carrying on the blues tradition. “We used to have all kinds of blues musicians around here. Guys like Carl Hodges. And there were great blues house parties all the time. You just don’t see that around here anymore, with all the young people just into rap and other things. That’s why I’m so excited that Whitney’s into this.”

“Yeah, my friends at school, none of them are really into this kind of music,” Whitney agrees, “but I love it. To get to learn from Mr. Holmes is such an honor for me.”

The healing powers of Whitney’s apprenticeship have also helped Sherman carry on his musical career. Last year, Sherman formed the Sherman Holmes Project with Wendell’s former apprentice Brooks Long and harmonica legend Phil Wiggins. “You gotta’ keep moving,” Sherman told me with his large smile, “you gotta’ keep going.”

Sherman and Whitney will join a host of other graduating and incoming apprenticeship teams at the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase, Sunday, May 15th from 12:00 to 5:00PM, at Ash Lawn-Highland, the home of James Monroe in Charlottesville, VA. The showcase is a free, family-friendly event that celebrates the traditional music, crafts, and foodways of Virginia, introducing the public to the Master Artists and apprentices who keep the traditions alive. More than workshops or lessons, apprenticeship learning takes place in the art forms’ traditional contexts, calling upon the complete engagement of the senses and contextualizing the practices within the larger cultural landscape.

The Apprenticeship Showcase is produced by the Virginia Folklife Program, a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and receives funding support from an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Bama Works Fund of the Dave Matthews Band, and Quatitative Investment Management. In-kind support is provided by Ash Lawn-Highland, WTJU, Charlottesville Wine & Country Living, WMRA, and CBS 19.

About the Author

Jon LohmanJon Lohman is the Virginia State Folklorist and Director of the Virginia Folklife Program. Jon earned a Ph.D. degree in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania. Since coming to VFH in 2001, Lohman has been actively showcasing Virginia’s rich cultural folkways throughout the state at festivals, exhibitions, workshops and public programs.