A Tribal Anthem's Author — And A Cult Rock Hero
In the 1960s, the late Lumbee Indian singer, composer and activist Willie Lowery led a band called Plant and See — as in, plant the seed in the ground and see what comes up.
The band recorded only one album, Plant and See, which went out of print shortly after it was released in 1969, but psychedelic rock fans have always held it in high esteem.
Plant and See's music was very much of its moment: a hazy, Southern blend of rock, soul and blues. And yet in some ways, the band was ahead of its time — especially in its diversity. The drummer was black, the bass player was Latino, the back-up singer was white and the frontman was American Indian — Lowery.
Malinda Maynor Lowery, Willie Lowery's widow and a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says some of the band's vocal harmonies have roots in the Lumbee church.
"Singing in harmony has been something we've done for hundreds of years, in churches without instruments — the richness was provided by voices singing in harmony," she says. "That's what he heard from babyhood. And Willie was an incredible perfectionist when it came to making sure his band members, and making sure he himself, were doing the right things."
Willie Lowery was born in Robeson County, in eastern North Carolina. His parents were sharecroppers. Lowery himself worked in the fields picking cotton as a young man, as he told a UNC folklorist in 2008.
"We grew up a very poor family," Lowery said. "We didn't have guitars and stuff like that. But I could always hear music in my head as I was plowing the old mule."
Lowery played a guitar for the first time when his sister married a man who owned one. His new brother-in-law taught him how to play a few blues riffs.
"The problem was, he didn't like for anybody to play his guitar, but every so often he'd let me pick it up and deal with it," Lowery said.
Lowery left Robeson County for Baltimore, then moved on to New York and Los Angeles, where Plant and See was recorded. But the band's label promptly folded, and Plant and See fell apart. So Lowery started another band called Lumbee, which scored a regional hit with the song "Streets of Gold."
Lumbee opened for the The Allman Brothers Band in the early 1970s, and Willie Lowery was invited to play with the Oak Ridge Boys. But he declined and moved back to North Carolina to raise a family. Gradually, Lowery built a second career — one focused on making music for and about his fellow Lumbee Indians.
Music For The Community
Jefferson Currie is a folklorist and a member of the Lumbee tribe. He says that in the 1970s, Lowery wrote songs for a musical about Lumbee history, as well as a children's album called Proud to be a Lumbee.
"He was telling the community, here's your history," Currie says. "The title track, 'Proud to be a Lumbee,' is considered by many — myself included — the Lumbee national anthem."
"Literally everybody in the Lumbee community knew who Willie was," says Malinda Lowery. "He never met a stranger, because everybody already knew him. And when he did meet somebody he didn't know, he treated them like an old friend."
Willie Lowery used that approach to support causes he believed in — including a campaign to preserve a historic building on the University of North Carolina campus in Robeson County that was originally a school for Indians. Malinda Lowery says her husband never regretted his decision to come home.
"He understood the vagaries of music business, and had let the bitterness of that really go," she says. "He would be very glad to see this level of interest in his own music, but really what he would be proudest of is what his children are doing."
A Family Man
Lowery's three sons all followed their father into the music business. His son Clint is the lead guitarist in the heavy metal band Sevendust. And while it might not have been Willie Lowery's favorite kind of music, Clint says his father was generous with his support and advice.
"He was always wanting us to find our own voice," Clint Lowery says. "At the same time, he was wanting us to stick to the fundamentals that are important, which is simplicity, and making it where people can understand what you're doing."
Willie Lowery died in May after a long battle with Parkinson's disease, at the age of 68. He didn't live to see his cult-classic album Plant and See reissued by the North Carolina indie label Paradise of Bachelors. But Jefferson Currie — who wrote liner notes for the reissue — hopes it will help expand Lowery's reputation, both in Robeson County and beyond.
"Those people who just know his psychedelic stuff — because there's a lot of collectors out there — maybe it'll give them a sense into his life," Currie says, "and [bring] them back to the Lumbee community to understand a little more what his influences were, and where he came from and how this music really came about."
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