John Dee Holeman’s demeanor and attire are as elegant as his music. The 90-year-old guitarist and National Heritage Fellowship recipient is one of the last of the Piedmont bluesmen, playing in a mellow style that entwines swing and ragtime licks. Heavily influenced by Blind Boy Fuller, Holeman learned his style from Fuller’s records as well as from those of the Reverend Gary Davis. But Holeman put a twist on it, mixing in a clawhammer approach at times for a unique approach.
The former heavy equipment operator originally from just outside of Timberlake, North Carolina, moved to Durham in 1954. Most tracks presented on Last Pair of Shoes are Holeman perennials, familiar to anyone who has attended Festival for the Eno over the years, most any Music Maker Relief Foundation event, or even the National Folk Festival, where he performed with Tad Walters as an accompanist.
Holeman presents a dignified presence on stage, usually clad in his Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, but manages to look dapper even when dressed down a bit. He introduces his songs by stating the title as if it was a sermon of great importance and then proceeds to deliver it in that same fashion. He’s not stuffy or pedantic, he’s just taking his job of blues narrator very seriously.
“Chapel Hill Boogie” is a Holeman original, a rowdy party song with Holeman revealing his party travel plans: “Going to Chapel Hill / Chapel Hill is on the ball / If you’re going to Chapel Hill / You gotta drink alcohol … do the Chapel Hill Boogie” over a bouncing bassline boogie worthy of John Lee Hooker.
The song appeared on Holeman’s 2007 release Bull Durham Blues, and as an acoustic version on Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s 2007 documentary and album 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads, a project that featured a bevy of Music Maker artists doing their stuff accompanied by Shepherd and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble rhythm section bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton. This latest take is speeded up a bit, electrified, wilder and woollier than the one with Shepherd.
Hound Dog Taylor’s 1971 composition “Give Me Back My Wig” gets slow dragged by Holeman, a much more sinister approach with threatened gunplay involved if the head covering is not returned to its pistol-packing purchaser.
For “Going Down to New Orleans,” Holeman sounds more like Hound Dog Taylor than he did on Taylor’s “Wig” makeover. Holeman usually presents this song about getting a dead man’s hand of glory for some hexin’ rather ponderously, but here, his guitar style is loose and rattly like Taylor’s, but without the kitchen table leg slide.
Holeman’s take on Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” is closer to Elmore James’ hell-raisin’ version, a great performance mixing in splashes of Piedmont mellowness while still wailin’ away as ferociously as James. “Dig Myself a Hole” is another Holeman stalwart, done here as he usually performs it live, slow and sinister.
Last Pair of Shoes offers great strokes from an old master still at the top of his form.