Willie French Lowery's Plant and See Released Today
Today, July 3, the Carrboro, North Carolina-based record label Paradise of Bachelors reissues Plant and See, a hard-to-find album of psychedelic swamp-rock by the band of the same name. Originally issued in 1969, the record was a showcase for talented Lumbee musician Willie French Lowery, who died in May. (For our earlier coverage, see "Lumbee Rocker Willie French Lowery's 1969 Psychedelic Album to Be Reissued".) Brendan Greaves, of Paradise of Bachelors, spoke with Indian Country Today Media Network about Lowery and his music.
How did you first learn about Willie French Lowery? Did you know of Plant and See (and Lumbee, Lowery's other group) at first, or was there a process of gradual discovery?
My friend and colleague Jefferson Currie, a Lumbee folklorist and historian, has been my patient guide to Lumbee culture and community. He turned me on to both the Plant and See and Lumbee albums, as well as the rest of Willie's remarkable musical career. Jeff also first introduced me to Willie and his wife Malinda, who is a historian at UNC-Chapel Hill and has written extensively about Lumbee identity, race, and Civil Rights in the South. Because of his connection to the Lumbee community through both his own heritage and his research, Jeff was the natural choice to write the essay in the liner notes. Mike Taylor, who records as Hiss Golden Messenger, is another close friend and a fellow Paradise of Bachelors artist. Mike conducted an extensive oral history with Willie in 2008, which he published in Southern Cultures. Mike's experience working with Willie further convinced me to help bring greater recognition to Lowery's music.
When and how did you get the idea to pursue reissuing Plant and See? What was involved in the process of getting the rights to it?
Plant and See was Willie's first recorded work as a songwriter and bandleader, so it was a sensible place to begin telling his story. (Prior to that, he had only recorded a few sides with the band Corporate Image, as well as some corporate jingles.) Another label reissued Lumbee's Overdose back in 2001, but Plant and See was largely unknown except to dedicated psych-rock record collectors, White Whale label fanatics, and Willie's family and friends. The songs and the artwork are both compelling and unusual, and we were thrilled to have the opportunity to reintroduce and share this remarkable document. Licensing albums for reissue involves a lot of time and research, particularly when the original label, like White Whale in this case, no longer exists, but we were able to track down all the copyright holders.
How did the Lumbee community help make it happen?
We've collaborated directly with Willie, Malinda, and Jeff on this release, as we will on future Lowery releases. It has been incredibly important to have their guidance and support throughout the process. As a label, we're interested in telling stories of under-recognized musicians, musical artifacts, and communities, so it was critical to have the perspective of family and the Lumbee community to inform and contextualize this reissue. Kay Oxendine, who is Haliwa-Saponi, has also helped us prepare some record release and memorial events at Lumbee Homecoming in Pembroke, NC on July 7th, about which we're really excited.
Why a limited-edition vinyl release? Are you considering coming back and doing a wider CD release?
The vinyl format pays respect to the original release, sounds better, and showcases the artwork at a proper scale. Vinyl appeals to serious music collectors and has a more tactile and significant presence as a cultural artifact. In the last few years, CD sales have plummeted while vinyl sales have boomed; the digital revolution has transformed the music industry in some wonderful ways in terms of access, but it has also left a lot of fans and artists frustrated with the unconsidered ephemerality and piracy that is an unfortunate byproduct of digital formats. Digital data is inherently unstable -- after the impending digital apocalypse, I know I can still fashion a primitive record player to listen to Plant and See! That said, we may do some CD releases in the future -- they're certainly less expensive to produce.
The documentation has described Plant and See as an important or seminal psych-rock and swamp-rock group/album. Can you expand on that?
This is a big question! In my mind, Plant and See and Lumbee weren't so much seminal or influential -- in the grand scheme of things, not many heard them then or now -- as they were representative of the best ways Southern music can synthesize various musical traditions and cultural perspectives (American Indian, African American, European American, etc.) into something new and powerful, both strange and strangely familiar. Their style emerged from a pop cultural lineage of psychedelic music, but the vocals, guitar playing, and in particular, Forris Fulford's drumming, are instantly recognizeable and singular, gesturing to other timeless horizons.
Obviously this reissue must have been in the works before Lowery died, and that was not part of the plan to say the least. How has his death changed your strategy? Has it changed the reception -- has his death made people more interested in the record?
Willie's death was devastating to his family, friends, and community, all of whom gathered to remember and mourn him at very moving services in Robeson County. Our goal has always been to bring deserved and overdue recognition to Willie's music, and so his passing, while deeply saddening, has only made that goal more urgent for us. (Although it was sad to revisit the liner essay, which was written and printed while he was still living, when we received the shipment of records.) Now we're just celebrating his life and career in a different, more retrospective way. Unfortunately, it's all too common that people recognize great artists only after they're no longer with us, but Willie had an entire people who loved him regardless of the broader fame that may have eluded him as a working musician. It's hard to overestimate the cultural power his music and activism held for an entire generation of Lumbees.
Do you have any plans of pursuing Lumbee's Overdose album for a reissue?
We plan on continuing to work with Malinda Maynor Lowery to release more of Willie's music from throughout his career, including Lumbee and solo material both known and previously unreleased. There are some amazing things in his archives, including live recordings and even a recording of Plant and See singing and joking together at Willie's birthday party in the late 60's. I'm fascinated by the variety and range of his musical practice, how he was able to work in different styles and idioms, appealing to psych audiences as well as articulating American Indian identity and politics with his later music, which draws more heavily from country, gospel, and folk traditions.