Claire Holley – Not just a simple southern belle
When Claire Holley was a child in Jackson, Mississippi, she used to take her mother’s ukulele to church with her so she could sneak out to the car and practice. Her grandmother had financed her piano lessons, but Holley says she loved the ukulele without knowing why. “I just didn’t have a love affair with the piano,” she says. Besides her infidelities with the ukulele, she was also passionate about the soundtrack to The Sound Of Music and the trucker music from Convoy.
During this time she discovered one of her father’s albums, The Chet Atkins/Merle Travis Traveling Show, which caused her to take notice of the power of the guitar. “It was just two really great guitar players sitting around talking and singing and playing in a room,” she says. “One song in particular — ‘Boogie For Cecil’ — had me getting up over and over again to put the needle back on that track.” It wasn’t until her later years of high school that Holley began to buy her own albums, but her parents’ collection had supplied her “with enough cool records to get by.”
Holley relates all this in a lovely Mississippi accent that she refused to lose when she went away to college in Illinois. At Wheaton College, she was one of about four students from the south. “Everyone must have thought I was just this simple southern belle, but on the other hand, people liked the accent; it got me attention,” she confesses.
Holley has always embraced her roots and says it never occurred to her that being southern was something she ought to be ashamed of. “We get such a bad rap, but southerners are cool. Most are nuanced and intelligent, and of course we have that sense of place thing,” she says. “I think it’s important for a songwriter to have a sense of place. Even our accent is musical.”
Holley now lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with her husband, writer Chad Holley, and their black lab, Annie, which she has just taken for a walk in the pelting rain. She still makes many drives back home to Mississippi. “There’s this one long piece of interstate that is the most peaceful and wonderful stretch of highway,” she says. “I get a lot of songs that way.”
Some of those songs wound up on Holley’s new disc Dandelion, her second release for Yep Roc Records following a self-titled effort in 2001. Prior to that, Holley had gained attention in 1999 for an album of hymns titled Sanctuary. It was financed by Holley’s father, a seminary professor who was moved when he heard Claire sing a hymn at a friend’s wedding.
Hymn-singing came naturally to Holley, who was raised a churchgoer. “My parents were Christians and we went to church a lot,” she says. “But there was no repression. They were both very creative and fostered my creativity.” She recalls one of her favorite games as a child: Her mother, a painter, would draw some sort of doodle on paper and assign Holley to create something from that scribble.
A song on Dandelion titled “Love Never Came” seems to tell a different story: “When I was a little child/The preacher lied to me/And I can’t forgive him now/I won’t forgive him now,” she sings. But songwriting involves fiction, and this is one of Holley’s talents. She majored in literature and peppers her conversation with references to Eudora Welty; her instrumental tune “Tread Softly” is named for a line in a Yeats poem. Though Holley was raised in a family of storytellers, she is hesitant to call herself one; still, it’s hard to deny her ability to create vivid imagery and characterizations in her songs.
One of those songs is “Six Miles To McKenny”, which could qualify as a short story of its own. The song originated when Holley saw a roadside along Virginia’s I-81 and later stopped in at a gas station where she encountered the main character in the song. The title track of Dandelion is a haunting ballad about the myths and ecstasy of love. The album runs the gamut of all the emotions, captured by Holley’s smooth, unforced delivery; she explores everything from childhood to religion to the loneliness of being on the road.
Despite such lonely moments, Holley says she mostly loves touring. “There’s something about playing live that is very honest,” she says. “Something magic happens when you look out at the crowd. If you mess up, you mess up, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I love that.”
Compared to her previous efforts, Dandelion finds Holley exploring somewhat less acoustic territory. “I was tired of being the mellow singer-songwriter and wanted to do something that rocked a bit more,” she explains, adding that the use of vintage instruments and the guidance of co-producer Steve Graham helped her find her edge and create “a looser atmosphere.”
Among those musicians who appear on Dandelion are Rob Seals, Danielle Howle, Nic Brown, Mike Garrigan, Eddie Walker, Steve Graham, Justin Rosolino, Chad Barger and Will Straughan. Holley is quick to credit that supporting cast: “One of the greatest things about making music is collaboration — the good, honest, and soulful things that musicians bring out of each other.”