The secret to the long-standing personal and professional bonds that have allowed the Holmes Brothers to make music together for over four decades might be as difficult to discern as the spark that holds a marriage in place.
But spend a few minutes with the trio's new blues-, soul- and gospel-drenched album Brotherhood, and you soon discover just how strong the group's foundation is and how effortless its upkeep has been.
"Let me tell you, that is the easiest question of all to answer," said guitarist, pianist, songwriter and vocalist Wendell Holmes. "We love each other. Brotherhood is not a joke when we say that on an album. It's for real. We've been through all kinds of experiences in 40 years, like playing the dives, the juke joints, the gigs that start at 9 and end at 4 in the morning, from making from $20 to $40 a night. That breeds love. We have to look out for one another and care for one another."
Brotherhood represents the latest chapter in a career that stems back to when Holmes, 70, older sibling and bassist brother Sherman Holmes, 74, and longtime friend, drummer and "brother from another mother" Poppy Dixon, 72, began playing together in 1967. They began performing as the Holmes Brothers in 1979.
Like so much of their past music, the new record is a merry scrapbook of gospel infused, juke-joint style rhythm-and-blues and organic, blues-referenced rock 'n' roll. All three members juggle lead vocal duties, from Wendell's high soul tenor on the churchy album-opening Stayed at the Party, Sherman's more rustic blues-soul lead on Last Man Standing and Dixon's jubilant falsetto on the vintage Ike Turner rocker You've Got to Lose.
"You don't stay with people for 40 years, even in a marriage, if you don't have some compatibility on what you like," Wendell said. "We like the blues and we like gospel, so we kind of bring all that stuff together."
"For me, it's just the honesty in their music," said Glenn Patscha of the contemporary roots music band Ollabelle, who co-produced Brotherhood and played keyboards on several of the Holmes Brothers' most recent recordings.
"These guys don't play tunes they don't like, they don't sing things that they don't believe in. There's just that honesty along with the obvious soulfulness, and the blend that they have from singing together for so many years. It's all that, plus their music just feels right. I just love everything about them."
Reception to the music of the Holmes Brothers has remained strongly positive through the years thanks to a performance visibility that has seen the trio touring and recording with such notables as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle and Kentucky native Joan Osborne, among many others. But it's the internal bond that continues to bolster the band (which continues to perform as an unaccompanied trio when touring on its own) as well a musical drive that informs and fortifies their family lives that matters most to the Holmes Brothers.
"The exposure goes in cycles if you stay in the business long enough," Wendell said. "But I tell everybody the most important thing is the three of us working together, loving each other and playing music together because some of my best musical experiences have been right in my own house with my brothers Sherman and Popsy or just sitting down with my wife and my daughters around the piano and singing.
"So it's not so much about exposure. Exposure is always good. But there has to be something in the belly, you know what I mean? So far, for the three of us, there has always been a fire in the belly, and it's not fading."