The last time Brendan Greaves saw Willie French Lowery, he was sitting on a couch eating ice cream out of a gallon container. The visit had been friendly: Greaves and his business partner at the time, Jason Perlmutter, were working through their record label, Paradise of Bachelors, to reissue records from Lowery's long career of being almost famous.
The relationship was tricky at first. Bad breaks and deals had disabused Lowery of his trust in music industry types in his youth. They'd goaded him into signing away both money and control, so he'd reorganized his approach to make music on his own terms. Despite Lowery's early suspicions, Paradise of Bachelors won him over. They would release their first reissue of his catalogue, the 1969 eponymous debut from his band Plant and See, on July 3.
"There was this kind of magical moment where he fed Jason and me ice cream off of his spoon," remembers Greaves. "That like sealed the deal. It's just this kind of beautiful memory of the last time I hung out with him: eating ice cream off the same spoon and him saying, 'All right, see you later! I'm excited for the record.'"
Lowery died on May 3 at the age of 68, two months shy of his old band's re-emergence. His loss is an especially biting one in North Carolina's Lumbee community, given his status as a figurehead, emissary and celebrity of one of the state's often-overlooked Native American populations. Lowery spent more than 40 years making music, writing tunes that drew from Native American, African and European-American traditions alike. The trajectory of his career was a wild one: He played in a traveling carnival, wrote deodorant jingles, acted as bandleader for former Drifter Clyde McPhatter, opened for The Allman Brothers and, ultimately, channeled his creativity into projects that aimed to affirm and uplift the dismissed Lumbee identity.
"For him, music has never been about getting attention for himself," explains his widow, Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "It was always about just creating it. It was just this gift from God that he had to express."
As such, Willie Lowery was a restless artist, torn between perfectionism and impatience. His desire for affirmation spurred long tour schedules and a catalog littered with stylistic experimentation and indecision—country, rock, pop, gospel and even R&B tunes. At best estimate, he wrote more than 500 songs, to make no mention of his innumerable production and engineering credits.
The rerelease of Plant and See is a fitting introduction into Lowery's life. The band consisted of musicians he met at home in Robeson County. Hugging the South Carolina border, Robeson is the state's largest, poorest and most ethnically diverse county. Plant and See was fully integrated, then, featuring a female Scotch-Irish backup singer named Carol Fitzgerald, Latino bassist Ron Seiger and black drummer Forris Fulford. Lowery was the atypical vision of the romanticized American Indian up front.
"I think that there were bands who were kind of assembled with that in mind, that kind of social boundary pushing, but for Willie, I don't think it was an agenda," reckons Greaves, citing the military and tri-racial nature of the county and the Southern tradition of musical alliances across race. "I think it wasn't as big a deal for them as it was for everybody else, but I'm sure it had something to do with their inability to really break through."
Plant and See only made one album, a full-length debut released in 1969 on White Whale Records, a Los Angeles label that repped The Turtles and The Rockets (who became Crazy Horse) and featured Warren Zevon as a staff songwriter. Regardless of these assumed boons, the label teetered at the time of Plant and See's release, offering only bad marketing tactics that prompted lackluster sales. Even so, the record's 10 tracks of swampy psych managed to eke out one minor hit—"Henrietta," which charted in California.
After White Whale dissolved, Plant and See signed to Bond Records in Philadelphia. Contractual demands required a name change. Recognizing the marketing woes that had plagued Plant and See, the label pushed for "Cherokee" as the calling card of this musically adventurous, racially provocative band. "Willie recognized that they were trying to capitalize on the fascination with American Indians during that generation," Greaves explains. "He said, 'Well if you're going to call it anything, let's call it Lumbee.'"
In many ways, Lumbee was simply a woozier, weirder Plant and See. Released in 1970, the band's only album, Overdose, keys on odd edits and space echoes, a sound that—when paired with the label-designed lysergic album art—meant the name of Lowery's tribe became associated with drugged out hippie imagery. The label even released a companion Lumbee board game based around drug dealing.
"That really upset him, that people who had seen the name for the first time thought of drugs. Not that Willie didn't do drugs, because he'd be the first to tell you that he did experiment with that back in those days, but that really upset him," says Greaves. "Whenever we brought up that record, he was very proud of the music but really disgusted with the artwork and imagery associated with it."
He didn't deal well with those frustrations: Between the grind of touring and the feeling that his heritage was being exploited, Lowery's personal life suffered. That's keenly felt in the lyrics of "Brother," a song written by his sons Clint and Corey Lowery for their own rock band, Dark New Day. The song, the single for the band's 2005 debut record, Twelve Year Silence, summarizes the pain: "When it's something we love that keeps us away/ Well it costs even more, and it's so much to pay."
It took him time to push that lifestyle away, says Malinda Lowery. "After being on the road, seeing the violence, the drug use, the corruption of the industry, just the craziness of it, that wasn't as appealing to him as having a family and settling down some—again, although not entirely," she explains. "I don't want to make it sound like Willie suddenly became this family man, because he didn't. So it wasn't like there was this sudden shift in terms of his lifestyle, but in terms of his creative output, there was definitely a shift."
Lowery continued to tour clubs and write his own music, but he also gradually realized the local artistic opportunities of being a Lumbee. In 1976, he worked with producers to pen the music for Strike at the Wind! The popular, long-running outdoor drama told the story of Henry Berry Lowery, a Robin Hood figure within the Lumbee community. In 1979, he wrote and recorded the children's folk album Proud To Be a Lumbee. A record of simple tunes, it features the voices of kids joyfully singing backup on songs about the first Lumbee leaders, the triumph of Henry Berry Lowery and the joys of homecoming. The album offers a clear message of pride in cultural identity.
Malinda Lowery, whose own academic and filmmaking work focuses on just these sorts of issues, knows well the significance of these projects. "Willie thought, especially with Proud To Be a Lumbee, that the need for that record was enormous," she explains, "just watching the kids in our community and how they felt about themselves and understanding that people needed something to look to. We almost haven't had a counterargument [to the wrong stereotypes] to make to the outside world. Proud To Be a Lumbee was that kind of counterargument."
Jefferson Currie II is an assistant curator at the North Carolina Museum of History. He grew up in Robeson County and considers Lowery's song "Proud To Be a Lumbee" one of the community's national anthems. "In some ways, he helped to nurture a stronger identity and sense of being among Lumbees," Currie says.
It's unclear whether Lowery's success spurred or resulted in his shift in priorities from being a struggling rock 'n' roller to a community activist. Ultimately, his increasing faith in the power of his community and the depth of tradition prevailed. Plant and See is a proper introduction to that quest. The timing of the album's reissue is a bittersweet one for Lowery's family and community.
"One of the things that I think we believe as Lumbee people is that a death can become a garden," says Malinda Lowery. "Instead of having flowers or old clothes or funeral programs or whatever most people have leftover of someone after they're gone, we have this old thing made new again—and that's just so Willie, so the tradition of the way that he worked."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Late blooms."