“Then, around ’76 or ’77, Jack started coming by the Blue Front a little more,” Holmes continues. “I think it must have been around ’74 or ’75 that I actually bought my first guitar. I don’t know what kind of guitar it was, but I bought it at RadioShack. As a matter of fact, that’s my guitar on display at [Clarksdale, Mississippi’s] Delta Blues Museum. So from then on, I’d play with the local blues musicians and these old guys would come to the Blue Front. Jack, Tommy, Bud, Cornelius Bright, Dodd Stuckey, and others would come by. As soon as they heard that Carey Holmes’ son, Duck, at the Blue Front, had a guitar—they started hanging here. They’d take turns playing my guitar. Dodd Stuckey, Henry’s brother, showed me how to make music rubbing the broom handle on the floor. Adam Slater was the first one to show me about the open tuning. I wasn’t particularly interested in playing the guitar, but he would come by most every day and he would ask me if I’d learned anything. I would tell him ‘yeah,’ but I probably hadn’t even picked it up. Cornelius would come in and say, ‘Where your box at? Let me fool with it a minute.’ He’d pick it up and I’d go sit outside. If I had shown him the interest I later had with Jack when he started teaching me, I would’ve picked it up a lot earlier. Cornelius could play. And he had a great voice. Great voice.
“Then in the ’80s, when Jack really started to teach me, he really wanted me to learn it. He couldn’t read or write and he didn’t know what any of the notes were, but he would play and just tell me, ‘Watch my hands, boy. Watch my hands.’”
In an excerpt from Robert Mugge’s 1991 documentary Deep Blues, narrator Robert Palmer talks about Bentonia’s devil-song tradition before introducing the team of Jack Owens and Bud Spires. Owens is playing his 12-string Kay with only six strings, and his singing reflects the high-and-lonesome influence of both Henry Stuckey and Skip James.
Owens remained the region’s preeminent stylist, driving himself to gigs, sipping whiskey, and telling stories nearly right until his death at age 94 in 1997. And then Holmes began to get more of those gigs, at places like the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, and eventually, around the world.
Asked about his preferred guitars, Holmes says, “I’ve never been too choicy about that. I know some are probably better than others, but my main concern is if I can get it tuned right and get the right sound coming from it. It don’t normally make me no difference. But right now I play this Epiphone Masterbilt EF 500RA. I’ve played it most every day here at the Blue Front or at festivals since maybe 2006. It has the best sound of any guitar I’ve ever picked up. To me, it sounds exactly like the hollow box that Henry Stuckey played. That’s the guitar I played most of the new album on.
“Part of the sound,” Holmes asserts, “comes from the strings. When Jack was teaching me to play, he swore by Black Diamond strings. He wouldn’t play anything else. That’s the sound I got used to, so that’s probably why I prefer them today. But to really play the Bentonia style, you need a slick G. It’s unwound so your finger isn’t swiping the grooves when you slide. Stuckey’s guitar was a big-bodied mahogany guitar with a deep, full sound. This Masterbilt isn’t near as big, but it sounds just as full. I’ve had people try to give me a guitar, but, nah, I’ll stick with this Masterbilt.”
The decidedly janglier sounding “Love Alone” on It Is What It Is was played on a 1972 Eko Ranger 12-string. “That’s the exact same year and model that Jack played,” Holmes reports, “but he only had six strings on it. He liked that wide neck and the extra space for his fingers so he wouldn’t smother two strings out with those big fingers. I’ve never liked electric guitars much. I don’t care for those solidbodies with all the extra features, like a whammy bar, reverb, and all that. But I do like that ’58 Harmony Stratotone Jupiter that I played on “It Had to Be the Devil” and “Buddy Brown” for the new album. It’s got its own sound. It’s not fancy, but I like it.”
Holmes has his own opinion on Bentonia’s open tunings. “Now, some like to say that Bentonia tuning is an open E-minor or open D-minor. I’ll tune the guitar to a straight open D-minor if other people are playing so the harp can get lined up,” he says. “But if it’s just me, I’ll tune it down from there, too. I don’t know how it’s actually tuned, you know—if it’s a B or D or something. I just tune it by ear to what I was taught. I let other people argue about what to call the tuning. To learn this music, the first thing is you gotta want to do it. Don’t worry about making a mistake; roll on. Play every day, learn the fundamentals, and then play from your heart.”
With no other players currently recording or performing in public in the Bentonia style, is Holmes the last of his musical lineage? “I think a lot about that,” he says. “Like Jack did for me, making sure I learned how to play, I would like to do that for a few people. My nephew, Larry Allen, lived next door to Jack forever. As a little kid he’d go over and listen to Jack’s stories and listen to Jack play. Jack showed Larry how to play, but Larry hasn’t played the guitar for a long time because he works a lot. He’s definitely getting it, but he hasn’t had the time. He’s going to be good.
“I also feel like my grandson, E.J., is coming along. I could send for him right now and he’d be able to play what I’ve taught him. I don’t want to push it on him. I don’t want to make it a chore or make it boring. He’s going to get it. It just takes practice.”
And Holmes intends to carry the torch for as long as possible. “I thank God for being blessed enough to be able to have the opportunity to play a kind of blues people enjoy,” he says. “I really just want to create music that stays true to those old guys who taught me and that people appreciate. I’ve never cared for being famous or wealthy. I just want to leave behind a positive example and impression. That’s it.”